Sound Advice Reviews
Especially creative workClose to You and Come Together
Here are two albums presenting songs we thought we knew very well, but imaginative artists make us hear them anew with their new ideas. Cases in point: the cast album of Close to You: Bacharach Reimagined starring Kyle Riabko and the fresh phrasing and liberties taken with melody by vocalist LaVon Hardison, who's come forth with a 9-song disc featuring a couple of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classics heard in Close to You. Riabko and Hardison may be new names to you, but both have already released solo albums in recent years.
CLOSE TO YOU
Words like "reimagined" sometimes get tossed around too casually when describing or promoting new takes on old material, but with Close to You: Bacharach Reimagined, the word not only fits most deservedly, but is arguably not quite sufficient. That is how creative and illuminating the work of arranger and star Kyle Riabko is with these vivid new treatments of the songs of composer Burt Bacharach, mostly with lyrics by his partner in the fertile hit-filled decade of the 1960s, the late Hal David. It's especially impressive because many of the popular original records were meticulously arranged and produced under the watchful command of their creators, with distinctive trademarks of precise rhythms and accents, layered sound with back-up vocals. Sweeping and/or percolatingly catchy, with repetitive figures in the architecture of the addictive hooks and underpinnings, the settings were memorable, as much a part of the success as melody, lyric, and vocals.
Dionne Warwick was the writers' most frequent muse, having chart smashes with many of the numbers chosen for this production, which played in New York before its two British mountings. But the Riabko re-workings for Close to You are often not all that close at all to the Warwick warhorses or the works that came before and after (with other lyricists and other singers). And so the songs stand on their own, not as nostalgia or indivisible from the records that made them successes. The catchy Bacharach bounce is traded for mature and perhaps surprisingly flexible melodies that don't now overshadow the lyrics by Hal David and other partners who never got the same attention or credit over the years.
The imaginative Riabko, who started the work five years ago when he was just 22 and not familiar with most of the oeuvre, liberates the songs from their former corseted and complex dressings and lets them breathe. Like a fascinated kid examining the workings of an automobile or a watch, he seems to have taken the songs apart, lovingly examined each piece, held it up to the light, noted its function and relation to the whole, and then put things back together in a new way without losing the dramatic essence or heart. They emerge not just with a fresh coat of paint, but truly fresh.
Perhaps only someone young, who hadn't had these songs swimming in his consciousness for years, could sing them and play them and re-shape them with the palpable sense of the excitement of discovery. This is all especially evident in the 12 earlier Riabko demo recordings of some of the same material, present as bonus tracks following the official cast performances (presented in the same sequence as they appear in the show itself). Rather than coming off as curiosities or anticlimactic filler to flesh out the second disc, these demos are often at least as engaging and fully realized as what comes before. And in the cases where the cast versions were assigned to other singers, his solos are more visceral and heartfelt, as I hear them.
While charismatic Kyle Riabko is a commanding central figure and can be a blending team player in ensemble numbers, his rich and moody voice of many colors and vulnerable persona make his vocals the main attraction. The other singers are all competent and the variety of voices, male and female, is a plus, but the others come off more as entertaining and delivering the numbers, while Kyle seems to be living the lyrics, soaked in the melodies and the tempi bending and slowing or stretching at his will.
Some highlights: Anastacia McCleskey brings an unspoiled gentle pleading to "Don't Make Me Over" that is effective without relying on histrionics or melodrama. Stephanie McKeon makes a fine partner with the star for "Making Love," a later collaboration of Bacharach with Bruce Roberts and Carole Bayer Sager (whom he married and who was the lyricist for the Broadway musical They're Playing My Song with Marvin Hamlisch's music). Greg Coulson and Renato Paris are pleasingly playful with "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," the only representative from the only Broadway score by Bacharach and David, Promises, Promises. A line in the lyric offers a grabbed opportunity to reference another piecewhen we get to "Don't tell me what it's all about ..." there is an immediate insert of "What's it all about?" which are the first few words of "Alfie." Daniel Bailen completes the company, but is only featured vocally on "Mexican Divorce," one of the shortest tracks, with the lyric by a partner from Bacharach's early, pre-David period, Bob Hilliard. Some of these folks who sing prominently are also musicians in the band: Bailen plays bass, cello, and guitar; Coulson plays guitar and keyboards; Paris is also a keyboardist. Riabko is on guitars and keyboards as well, with some ukulele work, too. And James Williams completes the band as percussionist.
Close to You is not a stage piece with dialogue, characters, or story, so it's not a jukebox musical by any means. It's more like a concert with a kind of theatrical intensity, where songs flow in and out of each other. Some are sung in full and others in mashups; bits and pieces of numbers are woven into others thematically as mini-reprises, preludes to the song proper yet to appear, or commentary. Example: The somewhat pessimistic "The Windows of the World" with its references to war brings out its pleading for peace and leads into "What the World Needs Now Is Love," its potential for Hallmark-simple panacea muted by the darker set-up. Coulson and Paris lead this pairing. The latter song is reprised near the end by the full company. McCleskey leads the group with a five-item medley of things from across the years that emphasize percussion, and Riabko leads a trilogy of lonely post-breakup songs that becomes an increasingly tormented storyline. On the happier side, the full company breezes through the blithe title song of Close to Youofficially and originally entitled "(They Long to Be) Close to You" to respectfully differentiate it from a ballad of an earlier era.
Riabko's "A House Is Not a Home" echoes heartbreaking despair, beautifully calibrated, with superb phrasing. "Alfie" is an in-the-moment questioning and then bold statement about the true meaning of life. And those demos! "Walk on By," which is not his number in the production, is heard in two demo versions, one more aching and slower than the preceding one, with the sorrow reverberating and the singer seemingly digging deeper for honesty. Even lighter fare has more meaning: "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" feels more first-person-experienced, the road rockier; the cotton candied Perry Como hit "Magic Moments" becomes genuine and tender. The guy, who also produced this excellent 2-CD set, is a revelation and cause for celebration. Magic moments indeed!
"(They Long to Be) Close to You" is a highlight on LaVon Hardison's album, whose own title comes from a Beatles song from the same decade of the 1960s. While the brother and sister Carpenters had the big hit with the Bacharach/David number after we entered the decade of the '70s, it had been around and recorded years before. The idealized image of the glorified lover whose very presence attracts the presence of birds who "suddenly appear" and stars that "fall down from the sky" is indeed a very romantic one that's nice to revisit and, just like the fine renditions in Close to You, LaVon Hardison's sincere reading makes for a genuine romp in romance. It actually takes a lot to make me fully engage with this song because it always gives me the giggles, since I often flash on the memory of watching a vocalist earnestly deliver the number in an old TV guest spot, not realizing she had accidentally transposed the lines and sang the not-very romantic words of a disconcerting scenario, making the lyric "Why do birds fall down from the sky every time you walk by?" (!) But when Ms. Hardison sings, those birds and those notes are both soaring high. A very original singer, she takes liberties with the melodies and this allows different words to be emphasized and underlined, and the shift in focus perks up our ears. It isn't cavalier; it enhances the lines, but purists may scoff. But it works.
"Alfie" is the other Bacharach/David choice, and at five and a half minutes, it is the CD's longest track. It's worth the luxurious exploration, as the singer really gets into the questioning of life's priorities and philosophies. It's thoughtful and open, with a shiver when she plays devil's advocate positing, "And if only fools are kind, Alfie, then I guess it is wise to be cruel." The interpretation manages to be both strong and fragile at various moments, as it should be. The voice is smooth, but rich, clear and strong, with no signs of roughness or forced production. Intonation is quite pleasing.
Enhanced by the airy, floating flute playing of Brad Schrandt (he also plays sax), the adventurous disc open with "Tomorrow" from Annie, opting for serenity rather than the anthem-like belting in the show. It's a convinced, confident adult here, knowing tomorrow can be better. Whether that rainy day is literal or a metaphor, the attitude is clearly that this, too, shall pass. The sun, surely, shall "come out tomorrow." The concept, by accident or design, is a kind of companion piece with the next track: the 1960s pop hit "Sunny" that begins its lyric singing not about "tomorrow," but rather "Yesterday my life was filled with rain ..." Ms. Hardison radiates a sunniness herself, but it feels genuine and relaxed, breezy and easygoing. Cut from more of a jazz cloth than light pop-rock or Broadway, she stays in her comfort zone, no more trying to strike a pose with this than she was going to be an awkwardly over-aged belting Annie with her hope and chin both high.
The next track is "Maybe," but if you're thinking it's maybe that so-named number also from Annie, no, it's one that suits her classic jazz leanings. This "Maybe" is the one by Billy Strayhorn that has a slyly humorous stancefor every hopeful "maybe," there's the lurking other possibility about each scenario: "Maybe not." Oh, how this singer's timing works wonders, winkingly popping the balloon of optimism. Also in the jazz home turf is the jazz singer's favorite, the list song "Better Than Anything." The vocalist has fun with this one.
The strongest example of her shifting the usual emphasis and taking artistic license with melody line is with another show tune, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green's "Some Other Time" from On the Town. Stretching the musical shapes and notes like some kind of flexible fabric that can then retake its original form, smaller words become key words, but it's not random or casual. There's a method to what gets the spotlight and it's daring, but delightful. And the often raucous and assertively demanding and bluesy "Unchain My Heart" is declawed. I am surprised and relieved to find that it can be honeyed and still work.
The solid but small band is completed by Osama Afifi on bass, percussionist Jeff Busch, and pianist/organist David Joyner, who has the perfect last name for an album called Come Together. But, more importantly, it really does all come together as a radiant tapestry of musicBacharach, Beatles, Bernstein, and all.