Sound Advice Reviews
Miss B.: Female Vocalists
Like your favorite Christmas sweater, Antonia Bennett's Embrace Me feels warm and comfortable and familiar. Songs, arrangements, and singer are good fits. With mega-coziness, she embraces the materialmostly major older classics from the American Songbooklike the old friends they are: she grew up surrounded by them as the daughter of one of their prime custodians, Tony Bennett. She's been singing professionally for some years now, easing her way in as her dad's opening act, all the while swimming in a sea of standards and mixing with musicians of top rank. Everything here feels owned, natural, and blessedly unforced. The many little liberties takena note here, a phrase therefreshen the very familiar brew of well-worn items, sounding especially at home with "Teach Me Tonight" (its lyricist, Sammy Cahn, was her next-door neighbor growing up) and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." From the casual flirtations in Cole Porter's "All of You" to the far more stately and formal Kern/Hammerstein "All the Things You Are," she wraps the material around her, stretching gently to suit a consistent style of relaxed contentment.
There is a kind of demure, almost kittenish sound in her timbre, something many female vocalists have put on (especially in more sex-stereotyped days of yore when they were called "girl singers" and "thrushes") for sexy, eye-batting effect. The crushed-velvet sound with a sweet persona is pure and simple a part of Antonia; that strong impression has been reinforced by her personality and spoken voice in interviews, including a lengthy one I got to do with her prior to her Manhattan engagement in November. There's a smile in her voice that is welcoming and gracious. Also present is a modesty in the mix, an appealing shyness that never translates into tentativeness in the approach to the material.
Four of the ten tracks are by the Gershwins. These and all the others are personalized with often subtle twists and turns of refreshed phrasing to bring new emphasis to a word or phrase that familiarity might otherwise make pass unnoticed. A slight pause, lingering lovingly over a word, then letting the melody glide over the listenerall these choices hit the right balance so that things feel respectful, but not starchy or dated. We're very much in the present tense.
Accompaniment is by a trio consisting of the particularly inventive and deft pianist Jon Davis, bassist Paul Nowinski and drummer Rafael Barata. Everything feels of a piece, one section flowing logically and effortlessly into the next, never like verses or instrumental solos Scotch-taped together. Likewise, there's no artificially imposed sense of drama or pushing buttons for climaxes and big builds. Those who prefer their love songs to be high drama with chapters of loss, longing, builds and crashing climaxes and cascades of tears may find it all too much of a piece. If anything, the doings settle into a comfort zone that, while involved and thoughtful, eschews most drama. Even lyrics that could play on some tension or angst don't really go there. "Yesterdays" is taken in a sprightly way, as if to force a brisk hopscotching over the regrets that some "golden days" are gone. And in Gershwinland: Despite the many uses of "maybe" and "maybe not" that could trigger doubt and frustration wondering if "The Man I Love" will ever arrive, we're convinced it's not a matter of "if," but "when." And "But Not for Me" rations its tears, never going for gloom and heavy-duty self-pity when it could easily wallow in that. Again, it's just not her momentyet. But, with this marvelous album, it should be Antonia Bennett's moment to get more attention (ironically on a disc that doesn't use bells and whistles and tricks to call attention to itself).
Embrace Me is produced by Holly Knight, with whom she's written some interesting songs for previous releases and concerts. They make it easy to embrace the standards they choose because they are clearly embracing them, sprinkling them with nuggets of new ideas, and have musicians who are not just along for the ride, but share the responsibilities to explore and invigorate.
Smiles come in many varieties in song: there's the big uncomplicated grin; the smiling-through-tears search for the elusive silver lining; the gritted-teeth smile that's fueled by determination and survival skills. Sandy Bainum flashes all these smiles in It Might Be Fun. But besides it being inspired by a title song, there need be no "might be" herethe album is definitely plenty of spunky fun, informed by a few touches of sarcasm that come from a been-around-the-block-before perspective on life and bursts off less-cautiously rationed joy. That title song is about throwing caution and pessimism to the wind to take a chance on jumping into life and love. Whether or not she's looking before a leap of faith or dusting herself off after a fall ("Trying not to be depressed, I'm 'Falling Out of Love,'/ Getting love right off my chest"), there's an it's-worth-a-try and no-pain/no-gain philosophy in much of the material.
The songs are all likeable ones by Bruce Kimmel and arranged by Lanny Meyers; the trio worked together before on the Kritzerland label and it shows. The album might have been called Chances or Choices, as many of the selections are about people willing or unwilling to take risks, and sometimes looking back at the price paid or to the future ahead because of those decisions. "I See Rainbows" is a blithe romp Kimmel wrote age 15 and there are samples from his career in every decade from the 1970s forward. The most recent is an album-ending ode to choosing optimism, the better of life's possible "Two Roads," written in collaboration with Richard M. Sherman. Usually strong in pulse and bouncy pop sensibilities, the selections are spirited and well-crafted, with lyrics that can sound like inner monologues of characters thinking things out or benefiting from 20/20 hindsight. I especially like some of the rhymesexamples from my personal favorite among the 15 tracks, "Maybe Something More":
The tunes that chug-chug-chug along with distinct verve might reasonably convince one who didn't know better that they were cut songs from, perhaps, the musical Promises, Promisesthat's a compliment to the fellow who's long had show music mavens' gratitude for his many albums collecting such Broadway-bound numbers Lost in Boston or Unsung from Berlin to Sondheim and so many others. In fact, several pieces here were cut from shows of his own or from aborted projects. As he proved with his earlier series, much that didn't survive is worth the rescue as stand-alone numbers. Besides knowing from the booklet packed with information and all the lyrics and song sources that all are Kimmel (with that one new collaboration with Sherman), some are also old friends to those of us who have been cast album collectors. Back in the good old days of vinyl, I'd picked up his scores for Stages, Together Again and The First Nudie Musical (a film score), all of which are represented here, as is The Brain from Planet X. And 1982's Together Again's "Falling Out of Love" gets a lyric update, allowing the keeping-busy protagonist's activities to reflect the modern age with references to Netflix, Facebook, and tweeting. It's nice to hear them all again, in the versatile Sandy Bainum voice that can croon, build up steam, or belt as needed.
A huge orchestra brings a lush, full soundlovingly balanced and brought out to serve the songs rather wallpaper or overwhelm them.
I think born-and-bred theatre people will relate to two numbers not created for specific musicals, but which reference show biz. They are the thoughtful one which compare the developments in relationships to a play in "Three Acts" and the brash rant "Who Do I Have to Blank to Get Out of This Show?" which is a hoot. The album would have benefited from another torrent of energy like this and one which might be deeply seriously sad ("It Doesn't Get Easier" gets close, but doesn't break down and let the torch burn). As it is, with 15 songs, it seems a bit heavy in the in-between territory of chipper perseverance, smarts, and hard-won wisdom where tears are quite dry. But that's quibbling; with some new CDs in recent years not taking advantage of the technology allowing for longer play times, I'm glad this one does, and that no tracks feel at all like "filler." As for the potential of Sandy Bainum, I've seen it realized from an early attempt in a New York cabaret room with Dorothy Parker as her subject to her series of solo albums, each showing more growth, strength, and individuality than the preceding one. Thus, I'll be eager to see where she lands in the new year. It might be more than just fun.
Among those singers with long careers stretching decades, but whose recordings are relatively few, especially recently, may I nominate Julie Budd as the Woman of the Hour. Or I should say "Half-hour," because her 2014 release is barely 30 minutes long! It contains seven tracks, with the last being just over a minute long, sound effects and all, and this mini-slice is an oddly largely-spoken "reprise" of the first number, "Home" from The Wiz. The others are all over four minutes long, with one being twice that, as it is a four-song medley. Her fans may be frustrated by the brevity of this release and the fact that it's been almost a decade since her last albumwhich is now hard to come by. But I'm glad for what we have with this too-short new disc for it is well done and a good showcase for the versatility of this veteran whose once-upon-a-teenaged-time calling card was mostly pipes of steel that could hold belted notes for an impressively long time. While she can still powerfully summon that strength, she can also showcase a rich and pretty sound, caressing notes and touching a heartstring rather than just make the rafters ring. She does a little of everything on this release. And does it all quite well.
They Wrote the Songs made more sense as the title of her cabaret act, where she also talked about the different songwriters she admired. The CD's title seems only to serve as a heads-up to those who see her club act that some of that material is here. The good news is that she seems at home with "Home" and everything else, not re-shaping everything into a belter's diva paradise as some might expect. (Since the title of the endeavor is They Wrote the Songs, and it's credited hereand alwaysto Charlie Smalls, I feel an obligation to point out that in recent New York City concerts celebrating songwriter Larry Kerchner, it has been made public that it was Kerchner who composed the melody and wrote the original lyric as a ghostwriter accepting a flat fee and, alas, no royalties.) Julie snuggles up to both melody and established stage lyric to create an intimate, memory-loaded feel. Her phrasing sometimes favors the melodic line and is thus less involving or convincing as compared to a more "actor-ly" approach seeming to live in the moments of lyrics, but she remains a force to be reckoned with and magnetic.
The focus is on post-Golden Age songwriters, the earliest being "Love Me Do," a song Paul McCartney began as a teenager and was one of the very first Beatles records. Julie has been mixing pop and show tunes from the beginning (McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road" is one of her most memorable efforts from the past and on her first albums, as a teen in the late 1960s, she covered The Doors and The Rolling Stones along with American Songbook gems from earlier decades as well as the then-recent score like Oliver!.) On "Love Me Do," all these years later, she sounds agelessly in the groove, with the arrangement paying its respects to its origins, but becoming funkier and slinkier with an appealing tension.
Ann Hampton Callaway's lovely "Perfect" brings out Julie's talent for holding back and crooning sweetly to create awe and a pin-drop moment of focused beauty. "Kindred Spirits" (Steve Dorff/ M.B. Derry) also stays on the pretty and poetic, idyllic side, with some more whispered phrases intoning lyrical references to "two souls joined" and the metaphor of "My love is a river." "Let Me Try Again," reshaped from a French song to be Frank Sinatra's comeback song in the 1970s is a case of a blueprint Budd chart that starts with a more laidback and ruminating mood and slowly but surely builds and builds to a pleading, dramatic conclusion.
The big medley of Anthony Newley trademarks is more old-school go-for-the-gusto belting Julie with the pow and pizzazz of Las Vegas showroom bravura and crescendo after crescendo. After three of his Broadway collaborations with Leslie Bricusse, Julie ends with a number written with Cyril Ornadel, "If I Ruled the World" from Pickwick, most associated with Tony Bennett, but on Julie's radar from close to her beginnings. She once knocked audiences out with it in 1970 on one of her appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and it carries a more mature, but still idealistic, vision 45 years laterand yes, still fervent with an all-stops-out finish. Brava! Indeed, some things never change and time can virtually stand still. And still standing by her side (or rather sitting at piano side) is Herb Bernstein, the man who has been her arranger-conductor-accompanist-manager from the start of her professional career as the little girl with the big voice on TV, records and in clubs. They co-produced the album, and additional arrangements and cello, harmonica, some piano, and synthesized L keyboards, come courtesy of Jamie Lawrence. Jay Berliner, the only other listed musician, is on guitars.
Julie Budd remains an exciting, electric presence for those of us who can get shivers up the spine from a powerful, big, and dramatic voice. And she wins extra valuable points, in my book, when the dynamics are used in judicious proportion to the story and emotion in a lyric, knowing that lush and pure can be just as captivating and potent.