Sound Advice Reviews
Here's a report from listening sessions devoted to the results of recording sessions that were male-dominated (with guest female presence in two of the three cases). With quite a variety in sounds and styles, and unlike some more bombastic things we hear, there's a lot of attractive, classy musicality that separates the men from the noise.
With an ingratiating presence, singing gently (or with a splash of unaffected joy) to achieve an intimate feel, D.C. Anderson's Sarasota makes for satisfying company. Displaying both the sensitivity and sly humor he's shown over a considerable body of recorded work, the singer (whose musical theatre performance work includes a long association with The Phantom of the Opera) seems warm, wise, and earnest. Material here falls into three categories: cover versions of established material spanning the decades; fun parodies of other familiar fare with his own clever lyrics; and wholly original pieces with him again as wordsmith in collaborations with five different composers.
Instrumentation is limited but effective on the 15 tracks, most with the presence of just one instrument: only piano on nine of them; otherwise it's guitar and/or bass. Moods and emotional impact are made concisely and precisely, as all but one of the selections clock in under the three-minute mark, with three of those shy of two minutes in length. The exception, quite contrastingly at 5:42, is named for President Donald Trump's quoted pleasure at seeing "Beautiful Barbed Wire" installed at the southern border. This politically woke commentary has an unblinking chilling effect, its reality increased by the inclusion of two actual snippets of the POTUS' voice (music is by Matt Vinson). Turning the microscope inward, there's close-to-the-bone honesty and haunting authenticity coating ruminations on loveor lamenting the loss thereof; two come with well-matched melodies courtesy of D.C.'s sister Claudia Anderson ("You're Lucky" and "Some Big Love"). Two other originals, both with Elizabeth Doyle's music, provide cute comedy. They are "Buy Me Something," the greedy demand its title suggests, andof special interest to our theatre-aware target audience"Actor's Prayer." This is a delectably fraught panic attack: a deep dip into the common nightmare performers have of being frozen in fear, going blank on stage.
The parodies are especially savvy in both performance attitude and writing, with devilishly deft, direct references mirroring the source material. That old standard that encourages you to simply "Smile" despite the reality that "your heart is aching" is transformed into the opposite advice: to give in and "Frown." Borrowing and tweaking actual lines of a Lorenz Hart lyric (his classic story-song with Richard Rodgers) of the guy with the most limited vocal range possible ("Johnny One Note"), quite the LOL hoot is the portrait of the melisma-mad showy vocalist, "Jack the Riffer." The writer sits out his third spoof, letting high-spirited guest Madalyn McHugh take over to provide the vocal (and her own guitar accompaniment) for the Dolly Parton-derived tune "Jolene." It now directly addresses "Carl Dean," invoking the name of the conveniently rhyming name of Parton's longtime husband.
The oldies are somewhat modest and straightforward in presentation, but cozy and convivial like old friends. A few take us to D.C. Anderson's happy placeserene or ebullient. On the dark side, those usual suspects of despair, dread, doom and gloom are in shorter-than-usual supply in "'Round Midnight," lessening its full dramatic potential. But "But Beautiful" showcases the Anderson insightful, speaking-from-experience persona. Whether singing his own words or those of those who came before him, whether waxing sweet or sassy, Sarasota's song stack projects the actor-vocalist as always thoughtful and actively thinking. And I think that's to the good.
With 15 solo releases under his belt in his quarter-century of recording (and guesting on more than three times as many other projects), singer Kurt Elling has an impressive body of work. While rooted in jazz, in recent times he has been increasingly the intrepid musical explorer, thinking outside the box, genre-blurring, with commitment and gravitas. His latest offering, Secrets Are the Best Stories, leans to poetic and philosophical shadings, stoking thought-provoking metaphysical atmospherics that suggest his own early years brought up in the Lutheran church and as a divinity student.
Adventure-willing listeners, prepare to be hypnotized, challenged, and nudged into a kind of unsettling uncertainty. Mystery pervades things in various ways, such as in "Stays," a sad saga about the self-imposed isolation and fearfulness of an odd, old neighbor with a poignant but chilling ending. Other moments are life-affirmingly uplifting ("A Certain Continuum" ends "There's a whisper in the water/ With a wisdom to impart:/ Restart./ Be your own work of art.").
Time can feel liquid or languid, with a no-rush policy that results in most tracks being on the long side. This collection is replete with reflection, but it is not for the attention-challenged or casual consumer of music. Lyrics can sound profound or puzzlingly abstract and the melodies may mesmerize, but they aren't commercial or instantly accessible. Most often also serving as his own lyricist here, the singer is matching words to the music of several people, including the project's anchoring and admirably adept pianist, Danilo Pérez. Their "Song of the Rio Grande" is a sobering, sorrowful homage to the headline-making father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border. They also collaborated on nods to writers and poets and their works, including Toni Morrison ("Beloved," which includes a swath of "The Slave Mother, A Tale of the Ohio" by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper from 1857).
Mood enhancement also comes by way of saxophone, guitar, bass and percussion, with some time devoted to instrumental passages. Throughout his vocals, Kurt Elling serves as a kind of combination spirit guide/ witness/ narrator/ seeker of answers. He's alternately gutsy or tender, singing or speaking with depth and determination to make us think and feel. The unusual experience feels catharsis-like and draped in drama.
Don't let the category "Classical Crossover" make you wince or worry or wriggle away. The voice and cello duo billed as Branden & James may be classically trained, but their stuff isn't stuffy. Overall, all they approach on the dreamy Chasing Dreams is imbued with real elegance and sophisticated beauty. Evident here is a knack forwith no apparent condescensionpolishing commercial pop baubles (from around the world) into items more resembling prize-worthy jewels. The atmosphere is dignified without being distancing, the singing and playing redolent with emotion and sensitivity.
Vocals are handled with majestic skill by tenor Branden James, who's worked with operatic repertoire as well as popular music, and came to the attention of a wide audience as a late-rounds contestant on TV's "America's Got Talent" in 2013. In more recent times he's been matched musically and then matrimonially with Australia-born cellist James Clark. While just the one voice/ one cello pairing make for a full and fully rewarding earful, there's more instrumentation offered: Mr. Clark does some keyboard work, and there's a drummer (Herman Crabbe) plus a guitarist (Tom Lodewyckx ), and, oh, did I mention the Budapest Art Orchestra for a string section? And the striking arrangements come via Patrick Hamilton, producer, pianist, percussionist and programmer.
Passion reigns. However, nothing is overblown. Since I've always been especially enamored of the sound of a cello, I'm super-pleased that Mr. Clark is so often co-star-equivalent in prominence. And the wide range of material is treated with respect and care, from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's "A Million Dreams" from the film The Greatest Showman to the bilingual (English and Italian) "Perfect Symphony" on which guest musical theatre performer Shoshana Bean adds her affecting vocals. While Don McLean's empathetic portrait of "Vincent" (aka "Starry, Starry Night"), about painter van Gogh, could stand to milk a few more tears for full effect, it certainly is moving and gracefully rendered. Remakes of semi-recent decades' rock and dance hits and power ballads are lavished with new gloss and glamour that become them. Among these are the catchy Keane item "Somewhere Only We Know" and Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" (which was also chosen for Marty Thomas' recently reviewed recording).
Two of Chasing Dreams' dream-spinners are credited as co-writers on strong entries, too: Patrick Hamilton shares honors with two others on "Canto Per Te"; and Branden James is one of three writers on the particularly persuasive promise of inclusivity and acceptance, "You Belong." As also demonstrated in their other releases and many YouTube videos (some made in lieu of live appearances during the pandemic), Branden & James are very versatile, having embraced everything from Broadway to Bieber, from Christmas classics to, yes, crossover. I'll be curious to see what Chasing Dreams' dynamic duo dream up next.