Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

White Girl in Danger, Cliff Beach, Triad
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's have a spring break from the predictable. How about some walks on the wild side with high-energy singing included? We start with Michael R. Jackson's recent show, which pushes the envelope with parody and punch. Since this week is the anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald, we'll have a look at a project dedicated to her. The third album contains music from the instrumental trio called Triad; they can be mellow and melodious, leaving the emotional singing to their guest vocalist on three tracks.

Yellow Sound Label

An often intriguing listen, the cast recording of White Girl in Danger, a musical which had a run Off-Broadway last year, hits many tones and dips into several music genres. It can be brash and bombastic, with tongue in cheek or fists in the air. Aiming its satirical barbs playfully at TV melodramas, stereotypes, and (more pointedly) racist attitudes, the songs and performances have laugh out loud moments and edge. Sometimes entertainingly campy, sometimes feeling subversive, with liberal use of vulgar language, it seesaws between fun and fierce. Composer/lyricist/bookwriter Michael R. Jackson (creator of the earlier A Strange Loop and Teeth, running through April 28) keeps race on the radar in this tale set in a world of soap opera where the Black characters are relegated to subsidiary roles and plots in the "Blackground" while the White characters are given the main spotlight. In promotional material, the writer stated that the piece was fueled by his desire to cathartically express his rage (as expressed in a clarifying, pull-back-the-curtain 11 o'clock number).

Cannily concocted and performed with flair, there is potent tension and perky pop pastiche that capitalizes on the essence and excesses of musical theatre songs others have written for bubbly or self-absorbed, cliquey, mean teen girls. Three boys who could be dreamy or dramatic boyfriend material are all played in spot-on characterizations by the same actor: Eric William Morris. Confrontations and condemnations whiz by, with the high schoolers myopically focused not on finding the killer who is on the loose in town, but in finding a replacement for the murder victim they were depending on to perform in a music competition. Latoya Edwards is winning and strong as Keesha, the Black protagonist in the musical who wants to be a protagonist in the soap opera scripts that are set in a town called "Allwhite" where "there's glitter and glamor and fortune and fame... and scandals and blackmail and cliffhangers, too."

Tarra Conner Jones is a dominant presence in a few roles, including Keesha's mother, flavoring the cautionary aspects with a kind of caustic sound that suits White Girl in Danger, especially in its red-hot title song about the student who's "doin' drugs but she won't do her homework." "Outrun the Story" is her rocking duet with the talented Liz Lark Brown, who makes the most of a role I wish were larger.

Listeners who are more easily offended may be put off by lyrics and included dialogue that is harsher and graphic. A couple of titles from the mixed bag of a score indicate such matter: "Lesbian Lesbian Sex Sex Sex" and "I Know Which Way My Semen Will Flow." 'Nuff said?

There's plenty simmering beneath the surface of White Girl in Danger's frothy and frisky selections and clever parodies. The digital booklet offers Mr. Jackson's introductory essay with background information, along with a detailed synopsis of the story and all the words we hear on the recording.

California Soul Music
CD | Digital

If I were literally "drinking in" a beverage equivalent of Cliff Beach's recording called You Showed Me the Way, I'd certainly not be sipping comforting chamomile tea; I'd be chugging one of those invigorating, buzz-giving drinks like Red Bull. That is, most of the time. The gutsy guy comes on strong on the majority of tracks, friendly but ferocious. Fasten your seat belts, hold onto your hat, and get ready to go. It's a brisk, bracing, exciting ride as he launches into selections associated with Ella Fitzgerald, a favorite singer of his. He features styles and sensibilities redolent of rollicking R&B, funk, and gospel–without abandoning the jazz roots. And a genre's icon gets an actual shout-out when, mid-song, he suddenly yells "James Brown!" as if invoking the spirit of the man known as "the godfather of soul." The musical reupholsteries are enjoyably bold and original.

While many numbers are standards and show tunes, such as Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" from Can-Can and the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?" from Funny Face, that have been covered by dozens of artists and don't show the shadow of Ella's versions, she gets the most direct homage on three items. On "How High the Moon," he employs the extra words she'd use in live performances, doing the number purportedly by request, on the fly, even though she claimed to not remember the lyric (singing, "'How High the Moon' is the name of this song/ 'How High the Moon'/ Tho' the words may be wrong/ We're singing it because you asked for it..."). And in a nod to the jazz legend's habit of quoting bits of other hits within a main piece, Mr. Beach also incorporates a section of the Van Morrison song "Moondance." He reaches back to the 1930s for two items on which Ella had co-writing credit: the title song of You Showed Me the Way (a relatively calm change of pace); and the novelty hit that remained a Fitzgerald favorite, the adaptation of the nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"–it's charming without being childish.

Over the years, Cliff Beach most typically has been his own pianist. This time, he turns over the keyboard to the very capable man who shares arrangement credits with him, Munenori "Moon" Kishi, one of nine musicians. Prior releases are full of original material (with the exception of a Christmas album); You Showed Me the Way has one sample of his writing, concluding with an attractive offering called "The Gift of the Blues." This collection feels like a gift to all of us who appreciate someone taking a chance by taking well-traveled material down a new road, rather than following the same old paths.

CD | Digital

The evocative sounds on Triad's eponymous release are in varied styles, with selections that include one fine composition by each of its members: the brisk and bright "La Lurcha Dura" by Christian Tamburr, who plays marimba and xylophone; the gentle "A Prayer for You" by trumpeter Dominick Farinacci; and the festive "Federal" by accordion player Michael Ward-Bergeman. The mostly mellow "Interlude" is credited to all three.

Admirers of Kurt Weill's melodies will happily note the presence of one of his non-theatre songs as one of the instrumentals, "Je ne t'aime pas," commissioned by a singer in 1934 when he was living in France. (The lyric, not heard here, was by Maurice Magre.)

Compelling guest vocalist Shenel Johns is shown to excellent advantage, covering three distinctly different kinds of songs. There's a slow-burn version of "St. James Infirmary Blues" that is the longest Triad track at almost ten minutes, "Stop This Train" a moody 2006 entry from pop singer John Mayer (who wrote it with Pino Palladino), and the raucously assertive "I Put a Spell on You. In much subtler ways, much of this recording casts a spell, too.