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CDs from Kristin, Kristin & Jim
one's a little bit country ... one's a little bit rock and roll ...
and the third has her standards



It's one scoop of each flavor this time. We're going down a country road with the Kristin we know from Broadway (and TV), while another Kristin, new to these ears, takes the "standard" route with some show tunes. And singer Jim Van Slyke's on the street where Neil Sedaka lives, with the veteran songwriter guesting.

Kristin Chenoweth: Some Lessons LearnedKRISTIN CHENOWETH
SOME LESSONS LEARNED

Sony Masterworks

Not so much unchartered territory, nor big chart hits from country music either, but Kristin Chenoweth is more coming full circle with a country music album. Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is the place where she grew up listening to and singing country music. Though to us dyed-in-the-wool musical theatre types, Oklahoma is a state of being where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, and we think of Kristin as a musical comedy star, she's more than that. She worked at the now-gone Opryland in Nashville (the city where some of this as recorded) and sounds here like any homegrown country artist who ever sang with a twang, with sass and a well of sincerity from the bottom of her broken heart. Although show tune fans who are also Chenoweth fans may still ask, "Where's your Broadwayish solo album?" after one album of religious songs and a Christmas CD, the current offering is a fun listen and has some of the Kristin personality-plus girlish spunk and splash and sweetness. Those allergic to this genre may resist, but there's contagious unaffected joy and the cathartic and revenge rant modes that native country does so well; you may like it more than expected.

Kristin sings with alternatively fierce forcefulness and seemingly unguarded innocence or guard-down reflection, to suit the varied-toned selections. She sounds terrific, wailing, weeping, strutting, born to the breed; the nasal braying quality that's sometimes been prominent in her non-head tones finds a suitable home in the country twang and holler. So does her cute-and-girly side with the Chenoweth cheekiness in evidence.

Not unlike a musical theatre "I want" song, several numbers focus on desires and goals, finding Kristin's various personae telling us what she will want (or, in country-friendly parlance, will "wanna") do. It may be "I want somebody I can bitch about / I want somebody I can't live without/ I want somebody who can make me insane" in "I Want Somebody (Bitch About)." It may be the rich single woman rattling off her possessions but insisting "Oh yeah, I want love, love, love ... I wanna feel the earth shakin'" as her back-up singers ask the song title's question "What More Do You Want?" In "I Didn't," she looks back at a broken relationship, remembering "If I wanted this, he wanted that"; in "I Was Here," it's the big goal of affecting the world with the repeated, repeated line "I wanna do somethin' that matters." "Why it hurts" is one of many topics on her agenda to discuss if her exalted desired house guest pulled up a chair, "if God dropped by for some homemade pie" (in "God and Me"). And what she doesn't want can be equally clear, with a tear: "I don't want to see your face til then" is the final declaration in the pain-palpable need for a "Change," written by Dolly Parton. And the county queen is saluted in the packing-a-punch, send-him-packing send-off, "What Would Dolly Do?" wherein she says, "You know I got a lot of Dolly in me" and has a great touché moment with a cheatin' lover caught red-handed: "Take your truck and shove it/ I know how much you love it/ And it's a good thing, 'cause that's where you're movin' to." It's one of two songs Kristin had a hand in writing, the other the contrastingly low-key loss lament, "Mine to Love."

When not in ballad mode, things can get aurally busy and bustling (less charitable Chenoweth bystanders might just say "noisy"). Sound blares and energy blazes, electric guitars—and country-trademarked steel guitars—jangle and jam; even the occasional tambourine or fiddle is heard along with percussion and extra keyboards, synthesizer, percolating percussion and backup vocalists coming in from time to time. Maybe overkill here and there, but when things are stripped down to wounds-licking pensive pieces with spare instrumentation and a more naked voice and soul, it's disarmingly effective in contrast.

Songwriter/ longtime Midas touch hitmaker Diane Warren is executive producer and five of the 13 numbers are her music and lyrics. Although varied in tone from the reflective to the raucous, what they have in common is what you might count on as the reliable Warren warranty: instantly accessible melodies and musical "hooks" that become ingratiating and/or ingrained in your head, with lyrics that feel naturally conversational or tap into recognizable situations. They establish their mission early and earworm-ly build to lift you up or wear you down, depending on your susceptibility and resistance to this kind of musical seduction. There's plenty of formula in this form, Warren's pieces and others, with things that sound somehow familiar and somehow fresh, but with lines and choruses that repeat a third time (or more) so that they may seem a bit anticlimactic as they reach their climaxes. But Kristin and cohorts never run out of steam and energy.

As is often the case with country and pop/rock, some lyrics take a casual approach to rhyming (with near-rhymes) and favor simpler vocabularies in general, more of a priority is driving home the point with a driving melodic/accompaniment steamroller. There are ever-so-gentle tender and pensive songs as well, such as Warren's "Borrowed Angels" which posits the idea that some inspiring people we meet who are gone too soon are on loan, temp visitors from Heaven who enter lives to enlighten and enrich them ("How else can you explain why they're here but not here to stay?").

Who knows where chameleon Kristin's paths will lead next? Meanwhile, she can be found on the first of October more than a stone's throw from Nashville—in Newark, New Jersey, at the PAC. The item sent for review was the 13-track audio CD with photo-filled booklet and gatefold packaging. Also available, exclusively through her website, is a deluxe set with even more photos and a companion DVD with performance footage of three of the album's songs.

Kristin Callahan: A New LoveKRISTIN CALLAHAN
A NEW LOVE

Kristin Callahan is as languid and laidback as Kristin Chenoweth is boundlessly bouncy. But it works for her with her chosen material on A New Love. She takes her time with songs, too, favoring almost snail-paced tempi, relishing the time to explore and linger on lyrics and moods. "How slow the moments go" goes the lyric to the first number, the Ray Noble standard, "The Very Thought of You." But the slow-going moments are pleasurable if too noticeably measurable. It's often hypnotic and thus compelling, saved from a listener's mind-wanderings by her involvement and the mesmerizing manner of her mellowness, the simpatico same-page accompaniment of ruminative piano, guitar and some muted trumpet for the muted moods. But everything is quite low-key here: even the minimalist cardboard sleeve, no-liner-notes packaging has the names of singer, album, songs and songwriters all in lower case on a new love.

Most tracks are over four minutes in length, a few pass the five-minute mark, and after two of the first three have passed that and established the M.O., some listeners might feel that the fourth track, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" will take the rest of theirs—it's not that long or much slower than others have sung it, but the no-push accompaniment and "lazy" vocal, it might seem longer. It also sounds a bit less lyrically involved than other readings, and that gives it less coherence. The near-consistency of tempo and ambiance might cry out for some variety, but it's the kind of album suitable for times when one doesn't want the jarring up-and-down switch of energies, but wants to stay in one cozy groove. Late night relaxation seems right, but Kristin's readings, though relaxed in their ruminations, are too rewarding and grounded to relegate to "background music." And, just when you thought the album was just one of those things that never changes much at all, Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things"—the eighth track—starts to move a little after her typical dreamy beginning. But there are only nine numbers in all, and the next and final cut is a true lullaby, crooned with its lyrics and some wordless singing flavored with jazz accompaniment: "Summertime," from the classic Porgy and Bess, now on its own path back to Broadway. Speaking of the Gershwins' contributions, "Someone to Watch Over Me" is smack in the middle of those nine tracks, another dreamy moment. With a bit of an aching cry, Kristin emphasizes the word "longing" as she sings about the man she's "longing to see" and sotte voces her way through the ballad, with subtly vibrato-inflected whisper and whimpers as Donato Soviero's guitar gently cradles her voice.

Vulnerability and velvety sounds dominate, a slightly smoky sound and breathiness bordering on muttering can give way to a more fluid, purer quality. It's all rather appealingly addictive despite the restrictive limitations of just a few gradations. Some material and approaches to it are more of a no-brainer easy match to the style, like taking the sultry-but-sleepy Julie London approach to "Cry Me a River," a hit for her that others have found energizing anger and venom in. But "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees takes the seductress's boast as a quietly confident, all-in-good-time wait for the good time to come, playfully pouting in its own delayed gratification way. Pianist Vince Evans starts the track with a pouncing attack on the keys, as if to egg her on to match him, but Kristin is almost defiantly laidback. Midway, near the lyric line that goes, "I'm irresistible, you fool/ Give in," he seems to respond in kind by kind of slowing down. And when the same lines end the track, it's even more pronounced as playful interplay as he collapses in slo-mo as if drugged. Not played for comic effect, it's a musically partnered, more sophisticated effect.

I would have liked more of Kenny Ritttenhouse's trumpet, but the trio of musicians have some generous solos which add aural variety and support and slightly broaden the moods, never breaking them. Solos are never self-indulgent in length or stylings, and instrumentation often sets the mood, particularly in the Evans piano introduction (and longish interlude) for "Small Day Tomorrow," that mini-gem of jazz by Bob Dorough and the late Fran Landesman which can survive very well as a cutely clever bit of self-satisfaction about not having a life like "those big wheels with their big deals" life, but this treatment finds some welcome layers beyond that, taken more seriously and reverently.

Whether taking the beaten or unbeaten path with these standards, Kristin Callahan and her musicians make them worth one more go-round.

Jim Van Slyke: The Sedaka SessionsJIM VAN SLYKE
THE SEDAKA SESSIONS

LML Music

I don't often make predictions and have never quoted my own in this column, but I do vividly recall my feelings and words when I heard Jim Van Slyke's debut album back in 2005, where I admired his vocal sweetness and purity and said he showed much potential. For that review of Open Road, I opened with, "I have a feeling I may be recommending Jim Van Slyke's second CD much more than this one, but he hasn't made it yet." Well, now he's made his second CD, and I'm recommending it not just more, but more than enthusiastically. I had concluded by saying that he was "on the road to bigger and better things" and he's been getting better all the time. I've seen him perform several times in New York clubs and long ago we had a conversation about how his naturally high-voiced sound and its aching sincerity and his ease with pop sensibilities recalled Neil Sedaka. His to-do list had the word "Sedaka" on it, and he got on it. Singer-songwriter Sedaka was more than pleased and became his champion, attending shows and even coming up to the stage to introduce Jim and/or sing a duet with him. They harmonize on two numbers on The Sedaka Sessions which rewardingly and richly documents the show Jim's been doing for some time now. To hear their voices blend is striking, not some kind of musical recycling or redundancy at all, but reinforcing more dramatically their similarities. One also senses those sensibilities in approach that are shared, kindred spirits, and the mutual admiration society.

Let's start with the two duets, both having lyrics by frequent Sedaka collaborator Phil Cody. It's a longish wait after "Brighton" begins before the legend enters the scene of Brooklyn boyhood memories. But, even with just the joyful ringing "la-la-la" choruses, their voices ring together marvelously co-mingling or echoing each other. Nostalgia for the days of childhood interfaces with a bit of nostalgia for a now decades-old song that recalled those days and perhaps a nostalgia for the pop of music history, Sedaka's second wave of pop popularity back in the 1970s. Also from that era (the CD's primary focus for its material) comes "The Immigrant," which had been dedicated to John Lennon. It has unintended new, more generalized, potency, recalling a more embracing "time when strangers were welcome here" when "there was a sweeter tune." The sweet blending of the two naturally sweet voices is more than just that: it's potent, with a determined intensity and maybe indictment in the mix. The emotional experience is enriched with repeat plays, proving that it's not just about this double coating of golden sound or a gold-plated oldie-but-goodie: there's depth and drama here. And the far-from-retired Sedaka, still in the trenches after a career that began in the 1950s, sounds splendid and instantly recognizable as himself. His new partner and protégé takes the higher voicings, with occasional solo phrases for Neil, so the similarity in qualities and timbre don't come off like a double-tracked recording of one gorgeous-throated guy. Although these two tracks are undeniably highlights, the rest of the album does not want for beauty or power. Jim on his own is formidable and firmly in command of the material he's steeped himself in.

Sedaka's other main lyricist, the late Howard Greenfield, is well represented, with the very early teen-topic hit "The Diary," which doesn't come off as cloying or wannabe mush, and a very commercial "Love Will Keep Us Together." That hit, a bit of pop-light rock fluff, a (to me) minor effort which won a major Grammy Award, opens the CD energetically but doesn't give an inkling of the far meatier and richer rewards to come with the ballads that dominate. Their "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," which was Sedaka's own hit twice as a singer, decades apart, first as a rock-and-roll smash and then as a slowed-down ballad, gets the latter treatment here—gloriously luxuriating in the melody's slow unfurling. A pairing waiting to happen of these collaborators' "Wish I Was a Carousel" and "One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round" is doubly worth the spin. Building in passion and yearning for a past ("give me one more chance at the midway ... give me back the world I remember ...") that can never be truly recaptured or relived—and the increasing realization of that unavoidable truth—is a high drama moment knockout. And it's knocked out of the park with a feverish and fearless performance, revealing the guts and more complex psyche behind what's clearly not only a clear and pretty voice. That wish for simpler days gone by more appreciated in hindsight is subject matter visited a few times (and implied by all the material itself). It's crystallized in a well-executed and nuanced lingering backwards glance at poorer but emotionally richer times of "The Hungry Years." What I especially admire is that, in his interpretations and phrasing, this more mature Van Slyke does not settle for just justifiable wistfulness in looking back on"good old days." Phrasing and arrangements bring out the present's sadder-but-wiser perspectives and emotions.

Tim DiPasqua, a notable singer (and songwriter himself) is pianist and arranger, adding greatly to the performances that illuminate some material with sparer settings than the original versions. Only Malcolm Gold's bass and Dan Weiner's drums are the other instruments, tightly subtle here, cutting loose on the lively tunes. Another singer, Brian Lane Green, is the live show's director and credited as the project's co-creator. The very musical and very legato Van Slyke (composer, pianist, voice teacher, etc., etc.) needs no heavy-handed melody presence or pushing beat to keep his tracks on track and flowing, so the accompaniments and arrangements can add other elements and piano figures as counterpoint to provide subtext on ballads with a storyline and moods to enrich ... or can be left to be sparse and let the singing take the lead and spotlight. The arrangement intertwining the not well-known "Pray for Rain" with the well-remembered comeback Sedaka hit "Laughter in the Rain" is a gem: the piano brings in the memorable intro for "Laughter in the Rain" before we segue into that song and then again later, tugging at a fond musical memory, tying everything together.

As he does in the live show, the singer takes the keyboard himself for the final track, "Solitaire," taking the usual third-person Cody lyric as a coda and personalizing it all the more by using first-person pronouns instead so that after the opening "There was a man/ A lonely man" it is obvious that he's singing about himself as the loner, perhaps subtly reinforced even on recording when you note he is the one accompanying himself. Certainly with the pronoun switching ("I'm playing solitaire") it's crystal clear ... just like Jim Van Slyke's voice.


- Rob Lester


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