Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Something "live" and
lots of love:
A catch-up on female vocals
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here are some recordings with women singers from here and there, starting with a live concert by a musical theatre veteran then some studio efforts with titles referencing the eternal song topic of love.

Broadway Records
CD and digital

Rich-voiced and solidly in command of her material, Lea Salonga dazzles when captured Live in Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by her brother, Gerard Salonga, featuring some of his own arrangements for the huge ensemble. Recorded in November of 2019, it's a satisfying and sumptuous, 16-track feast that begins with a sweeping overture that triggers memories of her roles in theatre and songs she introduced in animated films and anticipation for the bravura renditions to come. Very little patter is included and it's not the exact same set from the engagement that was seen on public television. Notably, the able duet partner for Aladdin's "A Whole New World" is a different man; he's Mat Verevis, a contestant on TV's "The Voice" who played Barry Mann in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in his native Australia. And Miss Salonga happens to include—and ace—a number heard in that jukebox musical, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," aided by background singers.

Other choices of material not introduced by the star but good fits for her strong suit of projecting yearning and determination are two from animated films of 1997: "Out There" from Hercules and Anastasia's "Journey to the Past." A journey to her own past, looking back at her stage and film career, makes up one-third of the vocal selections. They stick close to the original structures and sensibilities without risking sounding tired. Those who've been accumulating the singer's discography may still feel a sense of "here we go again" as they can now tally seven versions of "On My Own" from Les Misérables and six of Mulan's "Reflection," including their appearances in medleys on her other live albums. A more recent resumé revisit: the revival of Once on This Island for "The Human Heart." However, when she goes back three decades to her time in Miss Saigon when she was a teenager, she refreshingly and potently opts not for one of her character's pieces, but for the lament of a male character: "Why, God, Why?"

A medley of Broadway numbers introduced by Barbara Cook is pleasing, even if it doesn't threaten to top or topple Ms. Cook's iconic claim on them; the climactic high note in "Vanilla Ice Cream" is exciting, while several words getting revised seems unnecessary. Another medley provides another flavor of musical nostalgia in a genre contrast that may dismay some and delight others: a fun guilty-pleasure pop parade of bubblegummy hits of boy bands. More hard-edged rock is essayed with the group Train's Grammy-winning "Drops of Jupiter." Yes, there's something for everyone in Lea Salonga's rousing recital. And plenty of passion from the "Feeling Good" opener and onward.

CD and digital

A loving heart is evident in the persona we sense on Love Is for All Time time and time again as we listen to Lorraina Marro sing from the heart in her very warm way. While not going hard for drama, she can be effective with slow-burning embers and simplicity as she croons about our need for relationships in "People," the Funny Girl classic rarely recorded in recent years. The collection is all cozy sincerity, comforting and earthy. Even when she sings in Spanish, that comes through. So, usually, does a smile. Expand that to a big grin when she gets to "My Baby Just Cares for Me," by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn for the movie version of Broadway's Whoopee!. (Mentions of Julia Roberts and Halle Berry update the original 1930 lyric). Rose-colored romantic moods are especially snuggly with the image of another film song from that decade, with the Ralph Rainger/Dorothy Parker "I Wished on the Moon"'s happy-ending appreciation of when those wishes for love "all came true."

A six-piece band features pianist/producer Steve Rawlins, who arranged or co-arranged (with the singer) all the tracks. There are only ten in total, which is not a very full platter, but almost all clock in at more than four minutes and are relaxed so that time is ample to sample the talents of the players, especially guitarist Grant Geissman. Sometimes sounds float into a generalized marshmallow-melting sweetness verging on schmaltz when smoothly homogenized overall moods seem to be the agenda, sacrificing the potential sharpness of lyric's images or a possible emotional climax. But there's a gossamer allure. Vocally, there's also an elephant in the room which should be addressed now that we're a couple of paragraphs in. The Lorraina lovely legato lines come with a quite prominent tremolo that might put people off on first hearings. The more I listen, the less I'm distracted or focused on it. However, it took a while. Now it's become kind of endearing and distinctly characterful.

Disclaimer: Not being fluent in Spanish, I can live in denial and pretend I don't know the English language versions of the two pieces in that language, since they just sound so darn pretty. And "pretty" is a pretty good reason to settle back with Lorraina Marra and the band.

CD and digital

The lyric to "No Moon at All," one of the 11 rewarding and radiant recordings on Marya Zimmet's debut release, addresses "atmosphere for inspiration." Just the right atmosphere and attitude indeed pervades each treatment, thanks to the involved singer and mood-painting keyboardist Tedd Firth who arranged or co-arranged all selections. His contributions, creativity and dexterity can't be overstated. In the aforementioned number that's been around since 1947, the atmosphere is drenched with sultry serenity, while West Side Story's "Something's Coming" has the restless anticipation and compulsory pulse, and "Calling You" languidly unspools its long lines, cloaked in mystique that echoes.

The classy On the Road to Love is a big leap forward on the road to more success in achieving song "ownership" for this performer whom I've seen slowly but surely grow in confidence and energy over the years in New York cabaret settings. Vocalist and musicians (varying somewhat on the tracks) seem to be settled securely in comfort zones whether they're exploring standards, show tunes, jazz, or pop.

There's inventiveness galore, often in small changes. For example, take the title line of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" which comes up several times in the lyric in full or in part. We're used to hearing the stress strongly on the word "so." But when the vocalist and rhythm instead emphasize the word "you'd" or "be," the subtle shift tickles the ear and the newly anointed key word asserts itself. A couple of dashes of scatting add spice, and an extended ending culminating in a stretched-out "so nice"—adding syllables to those two words—is tasty icing on the cake.

Moody and mature, Marya Zimmet settles into the wistfulness that envelop both Stephen Sondheim's title song of Anyone Can Whistle and our favorite scarecrow's wish, "If I Only Had a Brain," slowed down to linger in the rumination complete with the rarely recorded verse that sets up the story (that isn't in The Wizard of Oz but is in the printed sheet music). And it's a nice tie-in on On the Road to Love to also get a stroll down the avenue where we first met that straw man, with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." It's a gentler take on the Elton John hit, thoughtful and thought-provoking—like so much on this much-recommended new issue.

Cellar Live Records
CD and digital

In love and music, misery always loves company and catharsis. No wonder the cautionary lament "You Don't Know What Love Is," about the agonizing symptoms of a broken heart is still around and being recorded. It has survived for 80 years, following its first near-death experience of being cut from the movie it was written for (a vehicle for the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, of all things). It makes for an appropriate title song and general theme for the debut release by the Angela Wrigley Trio, named for its vocalist who can sound authentically bruised and bluesy, sadder but wiser. She also plays keyboards here, as does bassist Derek Stoll; the third member of the unit is drummer Dave Lake. These talented folks are based in Calgary in Canada and have been together since 2017. Four other musicians join them on this recording, including executive producer Cory Weeds, whose strong and moody saxophone additions are a great asset.

The ache of loneliness is also palpable in the sorrowful vocals of two other standards, both introduced within a year of the weeper written by Don Raye and Gene de Paul that gives You Don't Know What Love Is its title. But while "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)" imagines the restless and unhappy situation of someone who's never had a romance, the other began as a poem by a woman describing her actual struggle of dealing with the death of her husband: "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)." The renditions are successful in feeling authentic and empathetic without drowning in a sense of self-pity. It's interesting to note that neither's lyric is addressed to warn (or unload on) an outside listener, as the Raye/de Paul piece is, nor were they written to be "note to self" interior monologues as many songs are. Instead, both directly address the absent person (referred to as "you," as the song titles indicate).

Definite highlights here, these three vintage numbers are elevated by an elegant pensiveness in their verbiage and interpretations, despite the emotional pressure—grace under fire, if you will. Excepting the playful "Tiny Glasses," there's unhappiness galore to wallow in via the more colloquial, raw, and also self-deprecating bluesy originals by leader Wrigley. In "How Did I Get Here" she refers to herself as being masochistic and in another she calls herself a "Crazy Fool." Also included are the spookily assertive "You Know My Name" first heard under the titles of the 2006 remake of the James Bond spy thriller Casino Royale and a slinky-smooth remake of "Smooth Operator," the 1984 hit from Sade.

The gutsy instrumental work here is powerful, equaling the weight and drive of the vocals. Stoll and Lake are forces to be reckoned with, and additional percussion and brass add more color and depth. The rhythmic agenda is not merely to keep a beat, but to feel like a witnessing character circling the scene.

Life and love are never sugar-coated in this first collection by the Angela Wrigley Trio, although the download version includes a bonus selection that contrastingly is a well-known ode to an idealized object of affection, "You Stepped Out of a Dream" from the same small window of time as the aforementioned three standards. It wasn't submitted for review (we got the physical CD), but I'm guessing it could show a brighter side that might hint at versatility to be seen in future releases by the group. Meanwhile, when things look bad and it's time to face the music with music that feels like commiseration, we know You Don't Know What Love Is is just the right accompaniment when you want to cry in your beer or need to wake up and smell the coffee. Either way, I'll drink to that.