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A Little Bit Country ...:

It's all about Houston this time ... not Whitney (and not much wit, knee-deep in simple lyrics and repetitive choruses). North of Houston is a live album by a Broadway leading man and his group, taking a break from theatre music for some Southern exposure. And then another guy with an album simply called Houston after its lead track "Houston, Houston, Houston" and, like the other, it's a country/western genre outing.


Broadway Records

What's that not-so-predictable Broadway leading man, Michael Cerveris, serving up this time? He's on the loose with Loose Cattle. That's the name of a band, so branded because of a "warning" sign which caught his eye. The commanding actor is best known to theatre fans for playing such intense and troubled Sondheim-singing murderous characters as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins), and recently the dad in Fun Home who takes his own life rather than that of someone else. The only trace of his theatre career on the recent album North of Houston is the final track, a freewheeling romp through "Pinball Wizard" from the rock opera Tommy which began life as a record album and reached Broadway as The Who's Tommy, catapulting him into the who's who of leading men. (He's also inched his way into theatrical rock as the title character in Hedwig ....) But rock/pop has been part of his career on and off, with some album releases and memberships in bands, such as one that went by the name of lame (spelled lower case), and he's penned his own songs. Lately, he's teamed up with a bunch of players he describes in his liner notes as "Southern by birth or inclination" for a more country sound. Cerveris plays acoustic guitar, joining five other players to bring country trademark sounds like steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle. And he shares the vocals with singer-theatre journalist Kimberly Kaye, who is front and center singing much of the time, along with Loose Cattle's feisty pickin' and playin' in lengthy but pleasantly frisky instrumental breaks.

Manhattan's nightclub 54 Below and Broadway Records, which has released quite of a few of its shows by Broadway stars on disc, are welcoming to theatre singers, whether their acts embrace or eschew show tunes. There's no title song here, but you could take the album's name two ways: that, after its maiden voyage in West Virginia, they went north of Houston (Texas) to present music with a Texas style in New York City, or that the gig was north of Manhattan's Houston (pronounced How-ston) Street, thus the neighborhood names NoHo and SoHo. There's mention of the fact that one of the gigs coincided with the power outages that came with Hurricane Sandy when the downtown parts of the borough—where band members lived—were especially hard hit. They added a song called "Electricity" (unfortunately, not the one from Billy Elliot) at the last minute. And yes, instruments include the electric guitar and electric bass.

Despite another inclusion named "Raise Hell," the album is as much casual laidback goodtime smile-seeking as it is raucous. What it is not is particularly emotional or, for me, involving. The bluff-calling "Run That by Me One More Time" was written by Fred Foster, Arthur Hancock and Jim Lambert, although the packaging credits Dolly Parton (one singer who's also recorded it) with being the person to blame for rhyming "I ain't dumb" with "I know a lie when I hear one" and "town" and "gone." Parton's tender song "Jolene" is savaged here in a mash-up follow-up parody parading the F word ("Jolene, F**k You"). A juvenile nose-thumbing attitude pops up in this, some patter, and even the liner notes.

Maryland-born New Yorker Cerveris's country-style singing can sound genuine and comfortable, like his immersion in roles he's played and recorded on cast albums. However, the vocals here give little evidence of the strength, gutsiness and dark drama and power that have made the theatrical work compelling. While it seems he's having a ball, there's also a sense that it's somewhat tossed off. Kimberly Kaye's singing feels more joyous and spirited. And the band is solid and nimble. Inspired by the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, Cerveris's own "Evangeline" is one of the more interesting tracks, though—like most—it goes on too long to sustain my interest. And not his most literate are the two choices from the songbook of Bob Dylan (an honorary Broadway writer of sorts as one whose work has been the basis of a stage piece in recent years). Our front man isn't kidding when he tells the audience they can sing along with "Wagon Wheel" (co-written by Ketch Secor) because if they don't already know the words, they will catch on easily enough. "Wagon Wheel" rolls on and on and on, with a repeat chorus. If only there were some richly emotional or intriguing storytelling lyrics somewhere on this CD we could latch onto.

I like some country music, but this CD just didn't grab me. I'm reviewing it later than I might have, as I had listened to several tracks some time ago, and then put it aside, being disappointed. Recently finally playing it all the way through, the initial wish for more variety and depth remains. But, if you're looking for a holiday from theatre music and an unpretentious excursion with country ambience, you may wish to go South with North of Houston.


DiamDisc Records

He lives in Austin, Texas, and his countryish collection here begins with the emphatically titled "Houston, Houston, Houston" and ends with a lone star loneliness tale of melodramatic romance, Marty Robbins's "El Paso." Comfortable in the saddle, Andrew Heller shows no sign of milking the soap opera or taking things lightly as he sings the saga of the cowboy who murdered a competitor for that Mexican maiden he'd set his sights on, only to have to vamoose and then return, still lovesick, to risk his life and lose it, be killed himself, then die in her arms. The robust voice rings out, taking it all seriously. In fact, the more robustly he sings, full voice, the more engaging he is. But it's difficult not to giggle at the full-steam-ahead admonishment to the temptress "Devil Woman" threatening his intent to have stayed faithful to his sweet Mary who forgives him.

The mellow stuff is less interesting; while the sentimental "Spanish Eyes" doesn't get a wink, he does give it more life than it had in Al Martino's anemic hit version. These old songs will sound corny and hopelessly old-fashioned to some, but Heller, singing in a non-embellishing manner, on the beat, neither breaks ground nor breaks with tradition. But there's a sense of humor lurking: the tongue-twisting silliness of "Eddy Brown" is a cute foray into fun. The rest however, is oh-so earnest. Released also as a single-song CD, "Scrap Piece of Paper" follows the item named in the title as it finds its way from person to person somehow. How? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

A genuine theatre song shows up, too: from the score of Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, there's a straightforward rendition of "They Call the Wind Mariah" (although both song lists mangle the spelling as "Miriah," rest assured it's that sturdy old piece and that Andrew pronounces it correctly). An honorary theatre song, if you include jukebox musicals/revues is "Kansas City" from the Leiber & Stoller catalogue. Not bad, but it doesn't dig its heels in and truly convince. A kind of polite, white bread/middle-of-the-road careful conservatism informs much of Heller's work, even the country roads and interstate highway detours feeling safe.

A few discs by this vocalist have come my way, his CD of theatre songs called Broadway Love being one. With some background in opera and concert work, some lighter songs and religious material have all been in his repertoire. Houston brings together songs he's previously released on other albums. For some reason (perhaps to position himself as a country-styled guy), DiamonDisc (a label he owns) has decided to recycle some tracks, and this release only features 11. Even the old cowboy classic, "Ghost Riders in the Sky," which has had a few musical lives, is revived.

It's nice to see someone going back to old school country rather than the glossier, very calculated and commercial latter-day hook-heavy hybrid that came to homogenize the era. Despite some bland choices, this back-to-basics approach is sort of refreshing in its own modest way.

- Rob Lester

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