Sound Advice Reviews
Women of Song
The whole is not always equal to the sum of the parts. On the whole, I am frustrated by Kristin Chenoweth's new live album, but fascinated and rewarded by many small passages of songs. There are lovely bits and flashes of glory. She hits some glorious notes and, at her more unguarded moments, can be tender or endearing. In another moment, things can feel forced or bland. I'm convinced she has a broad vocal range and strength, but am rarely convinced of her sincerity. (Comedian George Burns once said, "The most important thing in show business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made." It can feel artificial here.) What's coming through in Coming Home is the heavy-handed theme of "Local girl makes good" in Oklahoma where Oscar Hammerstein insisted that those winds do come sweeping down the plain. When not positing herself as the all-purpose all-characters musical theatre chameleon ("I Could Have Danced All Night," "All the Things You Are," "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," "Bring Him Home," in addition to the obligatory demonstration of her Wicked ways ), there are back-to-church hymns that have some real feel and potency.
Songs from her landmark role in Wicked are well received. Rather than do them as on the cast album, something new is tried. The moods aren't drastically different and they aren't rethought to be out of character. It's more of a gimmick approach: She takes a local duet partner for the score's "For Good." For "Popular," she references the international success of the musical by taking on several different languages for parts of the lyric, bouncing back and forth from one to another. That "other" famous score for the story of Oz is brought in as well, with the inclusion of "Over the Rainbow" which is pleasant but not gripping (a slight lyric error in the verse doesn't seem to cause a blip).
A polished and enthused entertainer, Kristin Chenoweth certainly has a variety of voices. Strangely, perhaps, that's my problem with some of her work. Especially on this live album with plenty of patter, I am too aware of a seeming disconnect. Her speaking voice and some character songs emphasize chirpy sound, girlish, giggly glee and regional accent that seem all the more emphasized or encouraged in front of this fervent and huge hometown crowd (Broken Arrow, Oklahoma). Then, this very "legit" high soprano pours out on some numbers. Not only does it seem like a different person, but it can feel too studied, formal, drained of earthier emotion. Has the actress in her checked out, incompatible with the priorities of the trained concertizer? Or, worse yet, am I too aware of the mechanics of her acting and intents, as if I am catching her pushing the buttons for intended results?
Though they demonstrate some impressive vocal colors, "My Coloring Book" and "Maybe This Time"(both early Kander & Ebb collaborations), don't seem to be made the singer's own with an original stamp. The Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer disco hit of yore, "Enough Is Enough" ("No More Tears"), is kind of an enjoyable homage as a cheeky romp with vocals by a strong Chelsea Packard. The high school choir comes out elsewhere to add a full sound and local flavor. They're quite fine. Mary-Mitchell Campbell is musical director and there are affecting instrumental choices and competent playing. All in all, it sounds like a happy and emotional night for entertainer and audience.
A DVD version of the concert, with additional material (not submitted for review with the CD) will be released next week.
Nothing is simple or plain in A Self-Portrait by Hilary Kole. The musical accompaniment is often dense, the moods painted in multiple shades of various colors which may not, on the surface, blend. The mind and soul expressed through the extremely attractive, supple voice seems rarely at restthe woman can sound troubled, determined, euphoric, or despairing. However, she's always reacting, analyzing, reconsidering, wondering. This self-portrait of turbulence can be gripping and gives gravitas to songs we might normally think of (and hear treated) as serene and unruffled, like the recasting and deepening of "And I Love Him" ("And I Love Her," from the Beatles' songbook).
Certain styling choices sometimes conflict with the agenda of exposure. This is most apparent on the opening track, "While We're Young," which starts off spare and intriguing, but quickly becomes a series of mood-distracting uses of melisma employed indiscriminately without being grand and showy. This calls attention to the skill-set rather than the song's meaning and story. More judicious melodic liberties are taken when bending notes or shifting emphasis; some of these adjustments bring emphasis to a word or phrase that makes us hear familiar lines anew in a way that supports the picture and can be a small but effective revelatory moment. Tempo changes and the tendency to linger over a lush element are primarily successful in enriching the psychological waters rather than muddying them. Brave choices are made and when they work, they work wonders.
Hilary sounds more vulnerable and pensive than on her earliest recordings and live appearances and A Self-Portrait can feel unblinking. No automatic pilot glosses over tunes and musical arrangements (most are her own) are many miles away from easy-listening schmaltz. The muscular yet non-cavalier playing of pianists Tedd Firth and John diMartino anchor involving accompaniment and instrumental breaks. Agnes Nagy's cello is particularly effective.
The bittersweet lyric of "Some Other Time," from On the Town, with its silky melodic line, is aced here. But it's no copycat version. Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," Joni Mitchell's pain and rue in "River," and Cole Porter's not lightly- considered invitation "It's All Right with Me" have heavy layers of personal angst and catharsis that may feel like TMI (or bravery). "God Give Me Strength" (Burt Bacharach/ Elvis Costello) is raw pain mixed with needed hope.
It's no secret that the singer's past media-paraded personal troubles are reflected, as liner notes and her own comments don't ignore them. Still, for me, there are instances where the schooled and endowed vocalist takes opportunities to vocally decorate rather than illustrate. Focus can be divided, but the best-focused true-life "snapshots" make for experiences here that dazzles and give us a front-row seat on the roller coaster. The camera can be startling.