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home and heart

Songwriters and singers are often guided by their hearts, at home with subject matter that expresses matters of the heart, in romance or the search for it. If "home is where the heart is" (and sometimes where the heart is broken), then this focus is natural. We have three vocal solo albums on the plate. The first is often "at home" on Broadway; her CD called Home has two title songs. The next has two songs with "home" in their titles and is named Human Heart and quite heartfelt it is. Last, Heart First is one from a vocalist new to me, but whose CD I'm glad was sent to my home.

Nikki Renee DanielsNIKKI RENÉE DANIELS
HOME

Her current Broadway role finds the captivating Nikki Renée Daniels singing the classic "Summertime" as the latest Clara to embrace the lullaby written so many decades ago for Porgy and Bess. She dazzles with it again on her debut CD, not in a full-length version, but intertwined with another number referencing the season, "The Summer Knows" (Michel Legrand/ Marilyn & Alan Bergman), the theme from the film Summer of '42. Both are treated to her elegant legit soprano tones on a debut CD that also shows off other aspects of her vocal versatility: her belt, a funky side, gospel style, and a comfort level with looser pop or a power ballad. On Home, she's convincingly at home with each style. Skillful, she's obviously well prepared and very much in control of her instrument, with much at her disposal, including melisma and power money notes. At the same time, the performances come off as unaffected and sincere, with a non-coy girlishness lingering.

A duet with attractive-voiced Jeff Kready, who is her husband, brings an extra glow to the rhapsodic "Say It Somehow" by Adam Guettel from The Light in the Piazza, although perhaps it doesn't soar as freely and fully as it might, having a sense of caution and the simple piano accompaniment a bit earthbound and ending with abruptness. Although accompaniment throughout is on the minimal side, with very few musicians, Nikki Renée Daniels has the kind of voice that fills the room and in many other numbers the sparseness is an asset. She also sounds refreshingly contemporary and accessible with Bobby Koelble's guitar on the two pop selections (Paula Cole's "Me" and John Mayer's "Love Song for No One," with drummer Keith Wilson kicking things along).

For me, the stunning standouts are the numbers at the beginning and end that are religious in nature and sung with directness and awe. Beginning and closing the album with the spiritual "Over My Head," the second version blending it with "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," there is power through the simplicity and communicated devotion. The next-to-last track, "Who Would Imagine a King"—with the dazzling high voice of Tituss Burgess—incorporates Christmas songs and is both reverent and stirring. In these selections, the vocals are in a rarefied zone and quite magical and moving. Joy bursts forth in Stephen Schwartz's "Spark of Creation" (Children of Eden). Although the tempo starts to feel rushed, the vocal ends with a grand note that leaps higher and impresses mightily.

Home's two numbers called "Home" show open passions and pleading of their own style. Of course, the lyric in the showstopper from The Wiz includes a plea to the Almighty, with "And, if you're listening, God, please don't make it hard ..." and, while not breaking new interpretive ground in her rendition that owes much to the original (and absent some of the fervor or confusion the original context would suggest), this respectful performance is rewarding. Its build is enhanced by the support of a well-used choir and the last, big long note (despite their sharing the soundscape) is a knockout. The choir includes producer-arranger Jamey Ray and six others. The denser, newer "Home" is by Scott Alan ("Home is where the heart is meant to be/ You'll always have this home inside of me") and she begins with the kind of pensive phrasing, giving weight to the words and their communicative intent. Then, intensity increases, without feeling overly button-pushing. The song is unabashedly earnest and she can "go there," with head and heart.

Human HeartRAMIN KARIMLOO
THE HUMAN HEART

Masterworks Sony

Crescendo! Climax! Cue the strings! Repeat the angst-ridden chorus yet one more time! Whether proclaiming, warrior-like, that "you need to know" that he's "Coming Home" or lamenting that "the storms are coming ... you're slipping through my hands" in "Broken Home," there's melodrama galore. The heart is on the sleeve, pounding and apparently resilient despite emotional upheaval on The Human Heart, Ramin Karimloo's first solo CD. This is a big, big album: big emotions, big voice, big orchestra that throbs insistently, sometimes relentlessly, with wailing walls of sounds that weep and crash on the musical shores. No lighthearted casualness is in sight. Life is treacherous out there for the fragile heart looking for its home or evicted from it.

This is intense stuff. Some of it is so go-for-broke fearlessly paraded that I can get into its catharsis and high drama, accepting it for what it is. I sometimes feel exhausted and unsatisfied—from lots of sturm und drang and little insight. This kind of style is not so surprising, coming from a singer-actor whose career in Britain has found him securing major roles in Les Misérables, Jesus Christ Superstar and both The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel, Love Never Dies. And, even if you didn't know that, the first track sets the tone. The pleading for a miracle, "Show Me Light," one of four songs included which he co-wrote, starts out with a tower of torment, with lyrics that talk about the "claws of destiny" and wanting to "set the demons free," saying he's "down so low there's nowhere left to go." But there's plenty left, and he goes there.

Karimloo's voice has a few colors, but some are buried in the production. Calibration and holding back—or quieter introspection—don't seem to be on the agenda. What appears to be the reflex action (or calculated freely used tool) to prevent pure stridency is a tendency to get very breathy, as if presenting a hushed confession or pain. This is used frequently, seemingly randomly at times to color a word or phrase here and there and here again, when a full-throated line-ending big note might be the more typical way to go. And there's just a lot of sound here on many tracks, besides the lead vocal, it being layered with not just rhythm tracks and the mammoth orchestra (recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, unlike the other elements) but also his own background vocal track and that of Tom Nichols (also guitarist and co-writer on some original material).

His Phantom days are given their due with "The Music of the Night"—thankfully done with a bit less grandness (at least as far as accompaniment), but with that tendency to do that breathy thing alternating with the ringing tones. When I hear the lovely, pure tone on the final note, it makes me wish for much more of that. Love Never Dies is revisited (it's his voice on the cast album) with "Til I Hear You Sing," a fully committed performance with sensitivity, informed with the requisite haunted ambiance and a pleasing last section that really pays off with exciting, bravura beauty. When the mask drops, some original songs suggest vulnerability in the eye of the storm, notably "Eyes of a Child" with its impossible request to "take me to those innocent hours where time flies and truth lies ... when the world was ours forever." But oh, for an understated version! Others numbers are encumbered by some false rhymes, although it's difficult to tell from the structure if some words like "coming" and "something" or "come" and "sun" are meant to pass as rhymes, and a few lyrics I still have trouble catching. (The booklet has no lyrics, opting for three pages of photo of the singer and two pages of notes and quotes from him instead.)

Our singer is satisfyingly forceful on pop ground with "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)," the hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves film song sung and co-written by Bryan Adams. In the unsigned very flattering liner notes, where he's described as "unquestionably one of musical theatre's modern greats" with a voice that is "amazing, a thing of natural wonder," the singer is quoted as stating that he was "wary" of doing this song, but did so because "no one had ever covered it before." Apparently, he and whoever checked his notes aren't aware of the versions by Petula Clark, Clay Aiken, Engelbert Humperdinck, Leann Rimes, Nana Mouskouri and Julio Iglesias, Brandy and Faith Hill, or Celtic Thunder (I'm not counting the video by baby Stewie from the animated TV show "Family Guy").

The heart gets quite a workout on Human Heart—his and yours.

Halie LorenHALIE LOREN
HEART FIRST

Justin Time Records

The heart and voice and overall feel are butterfly-fluttery on Heart First, with the very slinky, sultry (but I'd say "secretly solid") vocal qualities possessed by singer Halie Loren on her most recent of several albums. She's intriguing and somehow a mix of mystery and forthrightness. In the title song, she's ready to give her heart, then suddenly has the feeling she already has, and in "Tender to the Touch" she shrugs appealing, if ungrammatically, that "this broken heart of mine don't seem to bother me that much." (Both delightfully fresh-sounding but modest mini-gems are co-written by the vocalist and Larry W. Clark.) She has an original approach to songwriting and interpretation, with the numerous well-known numbers each showing very successful experimentation in styling and phrasing. New focus is brought to the familiar, always coming off as natural and not gimmicky.

There's a languidness that somehow rarely results in energy drain. There's no wasted energy in her light touch or that of her simpatico-plus pianist and co-producer Matt Treder. The musicians follow the singer on her skips and hopscotching through melodic lines, never overpowering for a moment, despite her wispiness (which is a good thing). She doesn't bite into lyrics with crisp diction, nor is she cotton-mouthed, but a tendency to sparingly hit hard consonant sounds sometimes adds to the legato flow. Lines flow like meandering streams on this often moody, mellow outing. It's the very, very rare kind of CD that can work either as ambient wash or be experienced with rapt attention to its details and subtly expressed emotions. Some is playfully flirtatious.

I especially like the way this very musical lady can begin a song "cold," with no intro or set-up and grab the ear and ... yes, the heart ... right away. It happens in the show tune "Feelin' Good" (Newley/Bricusse) which is arresting and commandingly assured without any power pack vocally. Quietly owning the lyrics, line by line, letting each sink in, I was rapt—and wrapped up into—a lyric I've known by heart for years. In a lighter way, she takes another old standard born in musical theatre, "Taking a Chance on Love," and has a holiday of contentment and confidence. She resists phrasing the several similarly-patterned sets of words equally in evenness, so that different words stand out than usual. At the end, she adds one more original tiny twist, ending not with the title phrase, but with a P.S. of the opening line of the chorus: "Here I go again," reinforcing the readiness for the leap. The band gets a great interlude here, too.

Most special of all is the "All of Me" rendition. This oldie, another one mentioning the poor troubled heart ("You took the part that used to be my heart"), is almost always done as a swinger or a sardonic pity party. Halie, surprisingly, in a slowly-unfurling tempo, instead makes it a dare, a simmeringly sexy invitation. With "Sway," she even makes another dance of courting, that number about "marimba music" I never cared for, interesting—by underplaying it and even swaying me to think it might be a better song than I thought.

Heart First is first on my list of current favorites for repeat play, something I don't tire of. With its mix of old pop like Van Morrison's "Crazy Love," standbys simply sung with genuineness like "Smile" and the aforementioned reinventions and originals, it flows well, with variety that doesn't jar. It gels instead. Tangy like lemonade, and relaxed, it's also the perfect hot summer day "cool" calmer. You won't sense the singer and band sweat, though, and that's good. Deceptively simple, there's a great deal of creative craft here and Halie Loren's lovely tones and elastic elusiveness warm my heart, first play and each play.


- Rob Lester


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