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3 Songbooks ...
(with a British accent)

The accent is on Songbooks this time, with three solo albums, and there's a definite British accent in the voices of the singers and/or their material.  England's musical legacy (from the West End and on the pop end of the spectrum) is the subject for The Great British Songbook from British musical theatre star Maria Friedman.  She includes the work of Anthony Newley, whose own CD follows, with first-time releases of demos from three chapters of his own songbook.  Another Brit, Barb Jungr, moves beyond old standards to offer what she feels is  ... The New American Songbook.


Sepia Records

From across the pond, Maria Friedman's well-sung CD samples songs from across the decades, written by her fellow Brits.  There is one inclusion of a number by American writers because it's so closely associated with a locale and a time in their history: the famous "The White Cliffs of Dover" and its looking forward to the end of the War.  There's great variety in Great Britain's writers and their material represented, from "Dido's Lament," an aria from an opera that's more than 300 years old, to three numbers from the master Noël Coward to some pop songs from the 1960s which were international hits, thanks to what was then called The British Invasion.  Showing her skills as an actress, the singer successfully takes on many personas and generally wears the many styles of musical "costumes" with flair and comfort—and she does not chew the scenery.  When the song itself is rich and dramatic, she underplays it and is not one to milk material. 

Maria does the best that can be expected in finding a way into the odd "Alone Again (Naturally)," a surprise big pop hit with its story of threatened suicide in its opening lines and the saga of parental death.  It was originally sung in an offhand manner by its writer (stage name, Gilbert O'Sullivan), but some attempt is made to go deeper without getting deep into soap-opera quicksand.  On this track and a few others, Maria does have a tendency to get hushed-tone whispery on words when thoughtfulness or hurt is being conveyed, and, for me, she relies on this too much.  It's partly because she has more vocal colors and vocal heft available to her, and I prefer the more legato and powerful tones when they are used.  By and large, I enjoy this very accessible and entertaining CD very much and admire the versatility of this performer. 

Perhaps due to a reluctance to leave out favorite songs and writers and certain periods, and what might be obligatory choices, some songs are in medleys, with varying results in ease of compatibility.  There are two choices plucked from The Beatles' legacy paired, but "Norwegian Wood" doesn't feel like a set-up for—nor segue into—the far bleaker "Eleanor Rigby."  Besides some grouping in medleys, the tracks seem randomly sequenced, not chronological certainly, and genre-hopping and abrupt mood swings make for a patchwork feel.  It's kind of jarring to go from the sad wistfulness left in the air with the end of Coward's "If Love Were All" to the sudden invasion of an oh-so-peppy marching band and back-up chorus declaring perkily that "It's a Long Way to Tipperary."  The assembled multitude then swings into another wartime ditty, the tongue-twisting cuteness of "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers."  The show tunes are scattered throughout.  Most are welcome choices in the program, it's just the programming that seems to be less than ideal.

A major highlight is Maria's fiercely dramatic and involved performance of "A Garden," written by her musical director/pianist/producer Jason Carr.  An accomplished song with lyrics almost as dense (in a good way) as the garden described, it's thought provoking, too.  Carr's musical settings and Maria's interpretations range from tastefully sympathetic to (occasionally) over-busy to some which are respectful to the point of being workmanlike, paler carbon copies.  In the last category, the "hidden track" of the title song from the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever may be thrown in for a lark, but it hews too closely to the Shirley Bassey original without the fire and high drama.  Trying to put the "mad" in "Mad About the Boy," Carr tries for originality with a busy, dizzying arrangement that upstages and simplifies the emotions.  (Still, it's kinda fun as a change of pace.)  Arrangements on many tracks work wonderfully well, with the small but super band very nimble and ingratiating indeed.

Waving the flag for the home team, Maria is a loyal subject making a strong case for these great Great Britain writers and their contributions.  An affection and respect for the material seems evident; what might come out as precious or maudlin sentimental glop in the sweeter numbers becomes sincere in these tender treatments.  Especially effective in that area are the theatre songs "Spread a Little Happiness" (Mr. Cinders) and "I Sit in the Sun" (Salad Days)—no pushy, mushy coyness or sugar overdose here.  Just real joy.  High drama is kept in low relief: where others pull out the stops and go "grand diva" grandstanding in Sunset Boulevard's "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Maria makes the anticipation less angsty and nervous and more optimistic.  Another plus: rather than just wallowing in self-pity or despair, there's pensiveness and self-awareness in her reading of "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and some splashiness, too. 


StageDoor Records

Although what's on this album is indeed "newly discovered," that description refers to these versions of the songs, not that the material being posthumously uncovered includes songs never heard in any form. They are not secret "trunk songs" or unpublished things or numbers cut from scores. Still, the CD is a big pleasure and a big deal for fans. These are demo recordings, but set aside any "uh-oh" worries and wariness that can come with the release of songwriter rough drafts of things not designed for commercial release.  These are professional, full-fledged presentations, not rough sketches.  And the sound quality is it good, but don't expect a full orchestra (no details or credits are given for accompaniment, and some tracks have more minimal or synthesized feel, while others are more fleshed out).   Unlike many songwriters, Newley was very much a performer since boyhood, with panache to spare and a strong sense of theatricality, humor and pathos.  As a salesman of his own wares, he's convincing and joyful.  Yes, that eccentricity is there, with the odd tone and attack on high, splashy notes that can seem bizarre and affected.  However, much of this is more restrained.  A few ballads get a bit droopy or soupy, and some tempo choices and stylings were "Plan A"—but most was ready for prime time.  And Newley was in his prime.

The album is divided into three sections as there are just three projects represented, all film musicals.  By far the best known is Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, co-written with Leslie Bricusse.  A 1967 film musical came after their big stage musical successes in the West End and on Broadway:  Quirky and cheeky, it also has one of filmdom's longer titles: Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?—this one was with collaborator Herbert Kretzmer.  The album features more songs from this than the others.  Lastly, there's the 1974 score written by Newley on his own, Mr. Quilp, a musicalization of The Old Curiosity Shop.

Can Heironymus Merkin ... is a score I have a strange familiarity with as it is one of the first LPs I bought, so I had it for years before I had the famous ones.  Newley was in the film but shared the singing with other stars, so it's rather interesting to hear him do all the parts.  The general attitudes are mostly similar, but "Chalk and Cheese" sung (barely) by his then-wife Joan Collins in the film is more lively and persuasive here.  It's one of those numbers about opposite types attracting (or not).  The snarky, proudly misogynistic love 'em and leave 'em battle cry "Oh, What a Son of a Bitch I Am" does feel overly long and repetitive in this version, but it was meant as a trio with one-upmanship and the men feeding off each other's energy.  There are two versions of "I'm All I Need" with lines about an atheist's self-reliance, and one can find some disillusion and ruefulness between the lines.  These songs have not been picked up much over the years, although Barbra Streisand did the bittersweet "When You Gotta Go."  The most ripe-for-picking is "On the Boards," full of delicious fun as a love letter to having a career on stage, but full of references to its precariousness and pitfalls, pecuniary and otherwise. Newcomers may find the score takes some getting used to as it is rather nontraditional and all over the map, with some nose-thumbing and self-absorption that may be less than ingratiating.  This section, by far, has the most slow spots and can drag.  There are, however, bursts of razzamatazz and just razzing.

The Wonka score is a hoot in Newley's voice as he takes on the characters of the spoiled little girl ("I Want It Now") and the creepy drone-like creatures ("Oompa Loompa" folk) delivering cautionary tales about overindulgences in pleasures of food and TV.  The messages come through, it's zingy, and he threw himself into it all.  Perhaps previously thought of as an incidental aside, "Cheer Up, Charlie" shows his tender side and is quite moving.  "Pure Imagination" seems not quite fully formed in attitude and not quite informed with character perspective at the point it was recorded. 

The Mr. Quilp score's five numbers here are quite strong.  A ballad called "Love Has the Longest Memory"  is affecting and is a kind of cousin to "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" in adjusting to being suddenly alone, but looking back down—and ahead to—longer roads of time.  Newley shows his skill in writing for and about unsavory characters in these scores, nowhere more impressively than here.  There are clever rhymes and love of language plenty of craft; the almost-title song, "Quilp," has the original thought of the character being so crooked that to put on his socks he has to screw them on.  Not exactly a revelation, but not same old/same old, these Newley nuggets are nifty—great discoveries or reminders of the performer and writer, a talent with polish and pluck.  And these are just a few pages from his impressive songbook.


Naim Label

You can look high and low, but I don't think you'll find a more intense, committed singer who invests more into her material, getting a bigger payoff than Barb Jungr.  Serious, deeply emotional, going deep into songs where others might fear to tread, she comes with her shovel and starts digging.  If there's hidden meaning to be found, she'll unearth it.  She strikes gold here.  Some might think that's an even bigger accomplishment with some of these pop songs.  But the choices are wise if surprising: she's not taking any old fluff and turning it into Chekhovian drama. 

Her voice has a haunting quality.  Eschewing gimmicks, as do her arrangements done in collaboration with musician Simon Wallace, the voice and settings are hypnotic, whether taking on the burdens of life and life's choices in Bruce Springsteen's "The River" or re-creating and deconstructing a Motown song ("This Old Heart of Mine"), slowing it down to find its words can be taken more seriously and supporting that. Give her a magnifying glass and she'll find the hidden sorrows and pathos and wisdom lurking in what seemed to be breezy, surface old hits.  She's examining them, reflecting, pausing just long enough to let a line sink in or sting, with a balm of shared human feeling or a cry of anguish in her voice, a cello line or counterpoint (Frank Schaefer adds immeasurably here, like a co-star).  This sounds dramatic because it is.  Very.  Barb, even more compelling and visceral in person, is one who actually deserves that overused word of praise: "amazing."  But none of it comes off as tricks or self-indulgence.  Sculpting songs, drinking them in and letting you, the listener, see what she has found—that's what's happening.  And, always, she is a storyteller who has a story she is living, a character she's playing, and sometimes taking the man's story rather than avoiding a song or changing the words.  She becomes a character in a song that is a tale.

One is pulled in immediately by the mood-setting instrumental intros or spare vocals.  Melancholy is a frequent overall mood; lamenting has rarely been more powerful or real in such material.  Perhaps the best example of her excavation and re-interpretation is "I'm a Believer."  Recorded by its writer, Neil Diamond, as a rocking celebration of positivism through falling in love and that mood expressed in a more rollicking, carefree way in the record by The Monkees, here it gets richer and grows up.  Everything is magical, appreciated, treated with reverence.  Believing in the reality and potency of love is no light thing.  "Not a trace of doubt in my mind" is intoned with awe and finality. "I couldn't leave you if I tried" becomes a vow and realization, not a smiley, glib passing thought.  Likewise, the hit by the group Bread, written by member David Gates, "Everything I Own," becomes a heavy duty offer to put everything on the line for a second chance or to prevent losing the chance at hand.  It's also a cautionary tale of ominous proportions in the line warning about the risks of taking a loved one "for granted."

The only thing one need take for granted with Barb Jungr is that she'll be dead serious much of the time (there is some relief) and dead right in her choices of zeroing in on a song's essential core and finding a way to tunnel into it.  Some could use a bit more variety and sometimes things slow down to the point of draining energy, perhaps the slow lane is a comfort zone; in Paul Simon's "My Little Town" it comes at the cost of injuring the song's backbone of restlessness of spirit.  Some colors seem missing, to borrow an image from the lyric. Those not big rock/pop fans may wish she'd gone back to Brel and that ilk, as a few of these selections seem to be stretched to capacity and not as fertile for her approach as others.  But I think most of it works and the attempts are always admirable and worthy of respect.

And she's likely to break your heart with the sorrow and pain in her voice or in the song—or both.  Some moments may seem turgid and some may find it all a bit too scary/dark/depressing, but it's gutsy and real and, I find, cathartic.  Much human longing comes through in numbers like "Wichita Lineman," which ends the album and echoes long after, as love's power flows like an electrical current throughout this and other tracks.

The first part of the title, The Men I Love refers to the all-male group of songwriters, and even if you don't think they measure up to the giants of the Great American Songbook, these candidates for The New American Songbook could not have a better campaign manager.

- Rob Lester

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