A CD titled Two leads off this week, subtitled Duets ... Mostly and it's mostly pretty. Trixie True, Teen Detective and two musicals hailing from Minnesota, both with music by the same man, follow.
BABBIE GREEN & JOHN BOSWELL
Ninety-nine percent irony-free, with no artificial ingredients, and a full serving of emotion-enriched nutrition for the human spirit, Two: Duets ... Mostly has a sweet taste. It might be anathema for the curmudgeonly or those with thicker skins, but the sensitive soul will find a pair of soul mates. Babbie Green has a warm and fuzzy songwriter's voice, and John Boswell's is likewise gentle and smooth. Together, they're a comforting and comfortable blend, the aural equivalent of a shawl and a cup of steaming herbal tea. The CD is a pleasure.
Most of the material consists of tunes tremendously tender, both in lyrics and melody. Before they dip into dreams and rhapsodized reflections on relationships, the album begins with a number that's more carefree - the charming title song. Following this opener and its one-more-time tag, the two reprise "Two" two times during the album. There's a "cute" factor, too, in "Kate," which is full of pitter-patter-paced lyrics like "furry-purry-scurry Katie cat." These fun tracks and occasional sharper lines within serious songs (example: "Oops! there goes a promise" in "The Day After You") serve as comic relief to brighten the pastel picture.
Babbie's melodies can be adventurous, not always going in the direction one would expect, but generally all the more satisfying for that reason. Babbie the songwriter doesn't always make it easy on Babbie the vocalist, and one can sometimes feel her "reaching" for a high note. But it's endearing because of the personality projected in her vocal quality and the emotion at hand. She wrote many of the songs alone, including those mentioned so far, but she and John collaborated on four others - music by him, lyrics by her. His melodies tend be more conservative. One, "When You Take My Hand," has a lyric by Julie Last, kind of an adult lullaby. "Too Much Sugar for a Dime" is the work of Babbie and Gina Kronstadt and may indeed be a self-fulfilling prophecy, though it's meant to be spicy with implied references to lust.
John, who also has some musical theater direction credits, records often as a pianist, both as a soloist with several albums to his credit. He also accompanies singers. (He's worked with Lee Lessack and Brian Lane Green and others.) He is on piano (splendidly) throughout the album, with Babbie joining him a few times. His singing has been less in evidence in the past, but this album shows him to be an intimate and effective vocalist.
I first became aware of versatile Babbie Green because of her songs performed and recorded by others, like Barbara Brussell and Andrea Marcovicci (who is among the guests on Babbie's In Nobody's Shadow: Songs for the Theater , and then a 2-CD set, Soldiers of the Heart, with the writer, Kristen Benton and Laurie McIntosh - it has more humor than the title indicates).
Duets, which often finds one of its two singers supporting the other's lead vocal, is an unapologetically very open-hearted and sincere work. It's nice to get in touch with two people so in touch with their feelings.
TRIXIE TRUE, TEEN DETECTIVE
It doesn't take a sleuth to find the truth: Although the musical comedy Trixie True, Teen Detective has some fine writing, it's not best served by this new cast recording. Kelly Hamilton is the composer and lyricist of the show, published and produced at the beginning of the 1980s. He has also written other musicals, including Dance on a Country Grave. Listening to this CD of a show I've never seen, I find myself struggling to get past the numerous disappointing vocal performances (with a surprising lack of energy for a college cast - you'd think energy would be its asset). The show has previously been produced professionally, and it seems a shame it wasn't preserved with a more polished company. Some characterizations and, most problematically, musical values (vocal placement and pitch), are not on solid ground. The group singing is the shakiest; some solos are effective.
The strongest track is a very good performance of "Juvenile Fiction" by Susan Blair as the boss tells the reluctant writer of the Trixie True books what it takes to succeed in the book biz for young readers. The novelist is suffering from burn-out, not wanting to churn out the pulp. Following theatrical convention, his character springs to the stage and takes over the show, but not before the writer's complaints have predisposed you to suspect you'd find more engrossing reading leafing through the phone book. But there are some daffy doings and comedy ahead with the teen queen of mystery, whose current adventure involves tapping into a secret code via tap shoes and being bound and gagged in a submarine before she gets to the luau (don't ask).
"The Mystery of the Moon" is an attractive number whose potential is better shown than most. Elsewhere, it would take more of a broad, winking style to simultaneously play and mock the genres and stock characters intended to be skewered. We don't really get the right tone for overly earnest "gee-whiz" 1940s teens; in other roles, what should be cartoony over-the-top characterizations are, well, under the top.
Certainly there are some nifty rhymes and ideas lost in the shuffle, and this album is best appreciated by those who can focus on the material or might consider a production. The sparkle potential is there, but to review this as a performance I can't be very enthusiastic. Neal Newman was the director, provided new orchestrations, produced the album and plays the role of the writer. The 14 tracks are listed in two places without indicating who's singing what, but the plot outline makes it easy enough to figure that out, as well as putting them into context.
UNDER THE RADAR
Both from Minnesota, where they've had long runs, come the original cast albums for two satirical shows. Drew Jansen provided music and arrangements for both, writing his own lyrics for one and collaborating on the other. He's also the producer for both cast albums, which are not brand new, but were previously sold just at the theaters and related websites.
HOW TO TALK MINNESOTAN:
THE WINTER MUSICAL
These two musicals have more than a composer and home base in common. They come from the same state (Minnesota) and the same state of mind: gently self-deprecating humor and satire where nobody gets hurts.
Church Basement Ladies features Drew Jansen's mostly peppy music and lyrics - some of them provoke smiles. I especially like two about the actual food: "The Pale Food Polka," cheerfully admitting that they blindly covet the blandly prepared tastes, eschewing anything that would tickle the taste buds. A bit of a taste for bad taste is necessary to enjoy "Dead Spread" about the menu after a funeral, but I like it. Here the church ladies are simply irreverent, offering dishes instead of dishing out sympathy, moving right along "because seven-bean salad won't keep." These Lutherans also take a chance to compare themselves to Catholics in "This Is Most True" ("They have miracles, we have Miracle Whip"). When the album's material strays from such specificity, it's less successful. The intended pick-me-ups with a pastiche churchy feeling, clap-yo'-hands cheer are too generic. Attempts to turn serious for a change of pace don't seem to be the forte of the writer or this particular cast.
The packaging is minimal for both albums, and who sings what is not indicated. Our foursome in the kitchen don't have vocal characterizations and qualities that are distinctly different enough that you can immediately determine who are the pictured senior citizens and who is the very young woman or her mother. More idiosyncratic personalization would make things that much funnier; characters are painted with a wide brush. The vocals are most entertaining when the cast sings in harmony.
Church cast member Tim Drake is also on the other album, How To Talk Minnesotan: The Winter Musical (that second part of the title indicates that, yes, this is a sequel). Howard Mohr, a writer for the popular Minnesota-teasing "Prairie Home Companion" radio shows, wrote a book of humor about the uniqueness of life in his state called How To Speak Minnesotan. It inspired a musical by the title, which had a healthy run, finding its audience by writing a show about them. The Winter Edition is advertised as "all new." Whereas Ladies has a cast of four women and two men, this one has four men and two women, with food still a topic: the Big Band Era style harmonizing group ballad "The Minnesota Salad Serenade" is a highlight. For dance tempi, "The Lutefisk Tango" is the counterpart of the other musical's "The Pale Food Polka." The tango is a very tongue-in-cheek paean to a smelly but ubiquitous item with "the tang of Liquid Plummer." Again, the singing on How To ... is competent and cheery, with more comic skill shown here. Once more, the harmony numbers are most impressive, with "Brothers in Ice" a winner.
A guide to dressing warmly to make clothes like "a thermos for your epidermis" has some of the best rhymes. Those with minimal Minnesota-esque extreme winter experiences may be left cold by the all the snow business, but musical theater buffs will appreciate a couple of inside references, like "chicks and ducks and geese used to scurry" in a singing commercial for "Orville's Hog Pit Pump." And anyone now gearing up for overlong, bragging newsy annual Christmas letters from faraway families will appreciate a dig at those. A few tracks are disappointing, but most of the 14 made me grin.
Both albums have Curt Wallen of Troupe America, Inc. as executive producer - their website leads to the Plymouth Playhouse where these shows have a home. If you happen to be going that way, you can still catch a performance of Church Basement Ladies. But dress warmly.
And now an equally warm wish for enjoyable listening 'til next week.