It's not a big week for fluffy. Here are four vastly different, serious emotional CDs: Billy Elliot takes us through life's ups and downs, Lilith takes us literally to hell and paradise, and two vocal albums favor emotional songs, too. Let's get serious.
I'm fully prepared to have the musical version of Billy Elliot dance its way into my heart. The cast album featuring Elton John's music and the lyrics of Lee Hall (with bits of his script, based on his own screenplay for the film) has moments that can certainly be described as emotionally charged. There are definitely some satisfactions. Of course, the show is about dance, and ... well, it's obvious that high-energy orchestral music, the sound of feet hitting the floor rhythmically and whoops of joy can only communicate a fraction of the impact. Any CD of such a show needs major aural compensations: truly amazing singing voices, fascinating orchestrations and melodies and lyrics consistently entertain on their own. As a listening experience, this cast album thus is an uphill struggle. It's partially successful, with much of the credit going to the boy, Liam Mower, who plays the title character on disc (the role is alternated in performance).
The album does capture the two extremes we remember so vividly from the film: the glum, grim day-to-day existence of Billy's family life miners and the contrasting exultation and escape Billy finds when he discovers dance. The bitter and resigned singing is on the mark, but on disc it's not much fun to hear. This is especially true because the lyrics are quite plain in some numbers with melodies that are dirge-like or just less than intriguing. The arrangements, even with the expanded orchestra for the recording, don't do much to distract.
There are, however, some standouts that make this recording well worth having, including "The Letter," expressing Billy's deceased mother's heartfelt regrets and blessing; the politically pointed dig, "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher"; and "Electricity." The last-named number is the key to the story. "Electricity" is Billy's successful attempt to put into words what dancing does for him. Bonus versions of "Electricity," "The Letter" and "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher" appear on a separate disc and are sung by composer Elton John himself. The songs are highlights - in both versions. "Expressing Yourself," the big number about individuality and nonconformity is a smash, funny and spirited. The busy and snide "Shine" finds its own high energy, but with an edge. The score doesn't lend itself to vocal acrobatics, but the clear-cut characterizations come through well on disc: Haydn Gwyn's delightfully sourpuss teacher contrasts well with the sincerity of Billy's parents: a somber Tim Healy and the tender Stephanie Putson. Best of all, the aforementioned Liam Mower and Brad Kavanah as his vibrant chum. And Elton John's 3-track bonus CD is truly a treat.
The packaging includes a booklet with quite a few color photos (but no plot synopsis or explanatory notes) and the lyrics, which will help, as some of the accents and slang may cause a few words to be missed. It should be noted that the album comes with a warning label because there is some cursing here and there.
I've been fully engaged by many cast albums of shows I never saw, but despite knowing the story from the movie and reading up on the staging, I think this can't be fully appreciated without the full theatrical experience. Still, I respect the desire to tell a serious story with unblinking human emotion.
LILITH: THE ROCK OPERA
Although initially presented as an album experience, rock opera Lilith is already planned as a stage production. Stay tuned. Its set designer's assignments will be hell, heaven and the Garden of Eden. The musical retells the story of Adam and Eve as well as the less familiar Hebrew legend of the first woman intended as Adam's mate, Lilith. God had second thoughts and decided she was better suited for Satan (one might say he meets his match), they're both banished and they plot revenge. And the plot thickens.
This 2-CD recording has powerful singing and the appropriate melodrama, both in large doses. There are fewer of the musical theater conventions and style assimilations than other pieces which defined themselves as rock operas. It's a set of often forceful, intense pieces, heavy on the wailing electric guitars with some longish instrumental intros. If you don't like that kind of rock music, the more hard-driving numbers may drive you away.
Composer-lyricist Thomas Kugler has a background in rock bands and classical music, and both influences show. The melodies tend to use a great deal of repetition, with short phrases established that are echoed in quick succession before a new musical motif is introduced. The melodies may spiral, hammer or throb, but these are not long-lined legato melodies. They're searing, but not not soaring. Theme-and-variations style sometimes turns into more of a drilling, going against the style of a theater song that should bring its audience to a new emotional or plot point and build to that through its lyrics. That doesn't always happen here, as the lyrics also have much repetition and "show their hand" by the middle of the number. Dramatically, that makes for an anti-climax, but it doesn't mean the songs aren't stimulating in other ways.
In the title role, Sierra Rein gives a dynamic performance as the lusty, enraged seductress, although some may well find it on the "screamy" side as her anger boils over. The character does not dominate the story, as she does not appear until near the end of the first disc (but she sure knows how to make an entrance - her solo is a tour de force). Also appropriately strong with requisite melodrama is deep-voiced Jeffrey Stackhouse as Satan. He does especially well in his guise as the snake, showing real versatility, and he creates palpable tension with Tom Mesmer and Samantha Dunn as Adam and Eve. Set with the task of vocally contrasting with Lilith without resorting to exaggeration, Dunn is never overdone. Mesmer more than holds his own, showing an affinity for powerhouse vocals as well as some admirable pulled-back moments when required to show awe and confusion. Song moments are provided for several others, including the perhaps surprisingly effective idea of having The Sun and The Earth personified. Although the songwriter sounds fine in a minor role, there are some weak spots in the smaller roles. Last but obviously not least, there's God. John Szura sounds committed in the in the daunting role.
There are some awkward moments in the lyrics, with syllables unnaturally accented as they sit on the music. Rock and pop lyrics historically have more near and false rhymes than theater lyrics. Some songs in this piece use pure rhymes (earth/dearth/birth) and others are full of false rhymes (wonder/blundered; friend/sent; breath/flesh; world/girl). In spite of this, the ambitious project has its own integrity, evident from the energy from singers and hard-working band. A look at the website www.lilithrockopera.com and an interview found there reinforce that.
There are a few instrumentals to round out the album, and they sound great, especially "Forsaken" where Kugler, who plays guitar throughout, takes the lead. His earlier vampire musical, Evensong (which I haven't heard), also began as a concept album and was later done on stage under his own direction. This piece has its strengths and - who knows - it may be best served as a staged extravaganza. I'm not in the business of making predictions either way.
You know the old saying about riding a bicycle, that once you know how, big gaps of time are irrelevant. I suspect that's how it is with Betty Joplin and recording. Despite very few visits to the studio over many years, she sounds supremely comfortable and at home. Her history includes long-ago duets with Arthur Prysock (Grammy nominated), performing live (she took off many years to raise her children) and a solo album ten years ago called Blinded by Love. Now, finally, comes another CD, also titled with an ocular reference, Visions of Love. It's a solid piece of work with good musicianship all around, at times very laidback and at others bluesy and a bit funky. There's a pervading depth of feeling in the singing in most of the numbers, some of it is in the sadder-but-wiser category, some exultant.
Betty gives her band a lot of time to stretch out and solo, and she generally takes her time when presenting a song. With a few coming in just under or over six minutes, these are luxuriously lengthy cuts and feel that way, with one exception: the ironically titled "Seems So Long" (she plays piano on this track herself). Larry Fuller who does exemplary piano work throughout the 15-song album. Guitarist Rick Hicks plays tasty guitar and is prominently featured. The other two musicians are bass player Larry Gray and Leon Joyce, Jr. on percussion (these two, from the Ramsey Lewis Trio, are also invaluable on the Tyler Stephenson Life EP, reviewed earlier this month). Even in the tracks with some heat and a kick, there's a pervading feeling of relaxed ease.
The lady's voice sounds natural and lived-in. The vocal quality is horn-like, with a slight but very appealing raspiness when she gets a little rhythm in her blues. One could play the game of which of the classic jazz and blues singers she most recalls, but the list grows as you listen. Let's just say she's a synthesis of some of the greats.
Old standards like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "But Beautiful" are well served, and Betty evokes still-fresh romance battle scars on an involving "You Don't Know What Love Is." Her "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" also finds her emotionally connected. One song she wrote herself is as direct and unpretentious in its writing as her singing is. Ending with a rousing trip to church, "Through It All" lets her flex her gospel muscles. (Just when you thought you had her style almost pigeon-holed.)
Deserving of your attention ...
As soon as I saw the track list on Crazy World, the debut CD of a singer new to me, Sandy Campbell, I knew I was interested. I already knew and especially liked all of the songs - all from musicals - but was impressed that she'd chosen so many from the last couple of decades. There are no light, throw-away numbers. Most are emotionally mature songs with something to say, the kind that give a singer something to act. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best - and pretty much that's what I got. It only took hearing the first few phrases sung to let me know the songs are in good hands.
Sandy's voice is instantly appealing as Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens' "Come Down From That Tree" (cut from Once on This Island) begins this album. She has an open and sweet quality, but with intelligent phrasing that keeps her safely far away from over-sentimentality. It's no surprise to learn that she has experience in theater and cabaret. It shows. Sandy has been playing lead roles in California regional theater, and this month starred in Moonlight Stages' The Most Happy Fella.
Committed to the material, the singer sounds fresh, even though the basic interpretations, tempi and arrangements are close to the originals. Her pianist-arranger, G. Scott Lacy, is a sensitive player whose work here is a model of partnership. Like his singer, he respects the material and doesn't compete with it or her - they are truly in synch. He joins her for one vocal duet, "I'd Give It All for You," one of two selections from Songs for a New World, one of the shows they've done together. The other song from that Jason Robert Brown piece is "Stars and the Moon." It shows her strength with story songs, as does "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10," the prize of a cut song from Sweet Charity. Her thoughtful, understated work here is more impressive than the full-voice singing elsewhere. Likewise, when it comes to high notes, she makes more of an impact with her exquisite pure and wistful head tones. "Why Did I Choose You?" would have benefitted from a less overtly ardent approach, but I'm always glad to hear it. This skillful singer-actress is at her best with the "Since You Stayed Here," a strong song from the strong score of Brownstone. It has the added emotional layer provided by the cello-playing of Deborah Yamak, her sister. That track is the only variation from the piano-only accompaniment.
Two story arcs are created by song pairings: Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" gets a revised context when set up with Nine's "Simple," and two movie songs have an interesting meeting, too. They are the neglected "Soon" (introduced by Barbara Cook in the animated Thumbelina) bookending the tender "It's a New World" (Sandy adopts the lyric revision of its final couplet as used in the Barbra Streisand version of the 1954 ballad from A Star is Born.)
From "It's a New World" to Songs for a New World, there's great range on Crazy World, with its title song (from Victor, Victoria) bringing it to a bittersweet but clear-eyed conclusion. Sandy Campbell and G. Scott Lacy crystallize the emotional potential of rich songs like these. An encore would be very welcome.
Time to take off the headphones 'til next week when it will already be March.