Sound Advice Reviews
Dream projects from divas:
They're dreamy, they're delightful, they're dramatic, they're dissimilar, they're digital. Melissa Errico brings songs Out of the Dark, the kind of fever dreams inspired by the film noir movie genre, with a few from such films, like "Laura" ("That's Laura, but she's only a dream"). And Laura is the name of one of the other two vocalists on tap, each with a modest-length debut recording with a "dream"-centric title: Laura Stillwell's jazzy Out of a Dream and Mrs. Doubtfire cast member Analise Scarpaci with a sympathetic Pathetic Little Dreamer.
Musical theatre and cabaret favorite Melissa Errico takes her cue from the milieu of old movies with detectives and danger, glamorous gloom, romance and regrets. Out of the Dark–The Film Noir Project broadens the pool of source material beyond actual golden moments from the silver screen, but everything shines in a burnished way. It's more about casting a spell of elegance and misty memory than mining for melodrama or flouncing about as a femme fatale. It's lush, but not lively, to be sure. The gear shift is set on languid and rarely veers from that in its 17 tracks. (The sassy "Checks My Heart" is the one change-of-pace pick-me-up.) With the consistently lovely, super-smooth Errico voice accompanied by the restrained simpatico grace of pianist Tedd Firth and other atmosphere-supplying musicians on some selections, it's a nice place to stay floating. Get cozy.
In its successful quest for chic mystique, Out of the Dark combines a few newer things with a wide variety of old things that now seem to share mournful musical DNA, like the opener, "Angel Eyes" (with its rarely employed long introductory verse), followed with "With Every Breath I Take" from the Broadway musical City of Angels. Songs sigh with a bittersweet air, but aren't shrugged off. Melissa Errico has a quiet confidence that allows her to be emotional and involved without breaking a sweat or ever breaking into histrionics or belting. Further in the tunnel of love's rear-view mirror is a measured "The Man That Got Away," prompting none of its typical throbbing anguish. The surprisingly welcome wistfulness is a refreshing approach.
Things are plush and pretty, but not pallid. Her "Haunted Heart" breaks without a crashing sound. Images swirl at a comfortably low velocity, as in "Laura"; its David Raksin melody was the instrumental theme for the 1944 film of the same name, although its Johnny Mercer lyric was a better-belated-than-never afterthought a year later. Another Raksin movie theme is likewise a formidable and very classy presence: "The Bad and the Beautiful" (lyric by Dory Previn).
Adding to the sense of "special occasion" are the aforementioned things that are new–fully new or pre-existing melodies with recently added lyrics. Among these are two that meld David Shire's melodies with Adam Gopnik's words, one is added to the theme from 1975's Farewell, My Lovely, and a recent collaboration called "Shadows and Light," which epitomizes the ambiance sought out for Out of the Dark. Gopnik and the late Peter Foley collaborated on the very engaging "We Live, We Love, We Lie, We Die" ("On vita, on aim"), sung in English and in French.
The live version of this project makes a return visit to Manhattan's Feinstein's/54 Below on May 11. I'm told that physical CDs will be available around the date of that Noir soiree.
Out of the eight tracks on Out of a Dream, three (coincidentally?) have the word "Out" in their titles: "Out of Nowhere," "Day In, Day Out," and "You Stepped Out of a Dream." But it's the EP's singer, Laura Stilwell, who's stepping out of her prior role as a choreographer guiding the steps of others and following in the footsteps of classy jazz singers who came before her with this smooth set of standards. Low, low tones resonate; in addressing some notes, she can hop-skip-jump along nimbly, break some into pieces, and subtly bend others. She seems so assured and skillful that one would be unlikely to peg this as a debut outing. Phrasing shows understanding of words and there's a comfort level in riding the wave of a melody, holding on tightly when things are brisk.
The slower tempi allow the singer to luxuriate in the music and linger over lyrics with especially thoughtful, in-the-moment mature parsing of words that colors and highlights them so that they glow and have afterglow. Gratifyingly, such pacing doesn't become dreary or feel energy deprived. "If You Could See Me Now" and "A Time for Love," each close to six minutes in lavish length, sustain interest and invite immediate repeat plays. They are, for me, the two highest-scored highlights.
All goes well for Ms. Stilwell who has the enormously good fortune of having the terrific Tommy James as her pianist: a man who was part of The Duke Ellington Orchestra for a few decades, leading it for several years. His gentleness on ballads feels ruminative and conversational and he shows vigor or playfulness on the friskier pieces. Bass player Perry Thoorsell gets much spotlight in "If I Should Lose You," getting a mid-song solo as well as full focus as accompanist for the first section. He and Dennis Caiazza alternate bass duties on the selections and Ron Steen is the understated drummer. Dave Evans guests on silky sax or clarinet on three tracks.
Out of a Dream may make Laura Stilwelll late to the party of recording, but she has obviously soaked up a lot by being around music in various ways for years. Otherwise, to be able to hit things so solidly out of the park the first time at bat would be just lucky or unlikely, like something out of a dream.
An ear-pleasing voice and a direct, unforced performing style offset the gloomier aspects of Analise Scarpaci's self-written songs on her seven-song digital release, Pathetic Little Dreamer. The stories of personal struggles and roadblocks to romance might have presented a singer drowning in despair, angst, or defiantly drying (or denying) tears. Instead, she's disarming in her decidedly youthful perspectives and quests for clarity and inner strength. She could use a hug. She gets our sympathy and wins points for trying to cope, learn, and move on.
The unpretentious pop-styled melodies are catchy without seeming to push for that effect in these portraits by the performer who has picked up where she left off in the cast of Broadway's Mrs. Doubtfire as the teen-aged daughter. (In real life, she's got a few more years under her belt; she was born in 1999.) While the confessional Scarpaci lyrics don't suffer from too much rambling or glibness, some songs build or conclude more interestingly and surprisingly than others in the lyrics themselves or the drama of a rendition. Your attention may waver when there's more you-can-see-it-coming repetition of choruses and similarity in tone, tempi, and mood among some numbers. There are multiple instances of settling for false or near rhymes (such as two nouns that would have rhymed if they were both singular or both plural).
Michael J. Moritz Jr. is the producer and music director who plays piano and synths, leading four other musicians who play guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Accompaniment is appropriately complementary to the emotions while adding a pop pulse that neither glosses over nor overdoes "enabling" a woe-is-me stance.
The set offers a mix of prominent expressions of self-doubt, self-awareness, self-affirmation, and self-deprecation (notably in the appealing title song addressing one's reflection in the mirror). There are recurring themes of hope turning to disappointment, restlessness, and steely anger. Also prominently on display are independence and resilience–or at least, determination to get there. Examples of that state of mind can be in "My Little Voice" when trying to tune out internalized negativist ("Will I get out of my head and finally make myself proud?") and turning away the once longed-for "Charlie" ("I have found a new love that can give me all I need/ And that new love is the music inside of me"). Then there's one of the more cogent and considered lyrics, "I Don't Write Love Songs," wherein she wises up and gives up the Cinderella fantasy of being swept off one's glass-slippered feet by an instantly entranced dreamy dude ("Last week I put my shoes on the wrong feet I fell flat on my face/ Look up and see everyone's laughing at me and no prince to save my case ... I'm very happy out here on my own/ I don't need a man for a prize").
Joy is rationed here, but some silver linings are in the clouds in the form of lessons learned and backbones strengthened. And catharsis can have its own rewards of relief and release. While the digital liner notes that introduce each song (beside the lyrics and a series of photos) state that not everything is purely autobiographical, there's a sense of lived-in honesty and the licking of one's wounds. Pathetic Little Dreamer is like a diary set to music. Although this is her first foray as a recording artist, she's hardly new to singing in live settings, having done so over the years in many locations and venues.