Sound Advice Reviews
Focus on females:
Women are very much in the spotlight this time, starting with a musical about the 1996 Olympics' American female gymnastics team, known as The Magnificent Seven. From agile gymnasts, we move to Acrobats, recorded by agile-voiced Jo Lawry who is accompanied by two women musicians. Then we consider Sonica, another trio of ladies, who are all singer-songwriter-instrumentalists. And vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow soars on a set all about birds.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Many musicals compete to win our attention and it's a special kind of winner that can intrigue us and make us care about characters obsessed with an activity in which we personally have had little or no interest. A classic example: The compelling competing auditonees in A Chorus Line move us even if we never stepped into show biz. Why? We connect to their concerns in dealing with pressure, goals, self-image, and rejection. Those who don't play Chess can get pulled into a musical about it; being fascinated with that actual activity is not the name of the game. We might commiserate with the young women vying to be crowned the pageant winner in Smile or cheer for cheerleaders in Bring It On. Like the aforementioned or the Pitch Perfect movies about college a cappella groups, The Magnificent Seven makes the feelings behind the stakes and struggles involved in a specific activity come forward to feel universal. In this case, the sympathetically portrayed protagonists are based on real-life people: the eyes-on-the-prize teenage girls who represented the United States in the 1996 Olympics. Twenty tracks track their physical motions and emotions in music and lyrics. Let the games begin!
The single-minded determination is palpable and the doubts are poignant throughout the committed performances on this recording. It represents the cast of a 2022 production housed on Manhattan's Theatre Row. Songs from the show were previously presented in the city and it was given a run this spring in Michigan where the pandemic-paused project had been developed. This fine cast is solidly supported by a quartet of musicians (piano, guitar, bass, and drums). There's no overture or entr'acte to give them more spotlight, but two instrumental tracks not on the CD are available on sites where the cast album can be downloaded.
The gymnastics team comes to individual and group life in the well-made, muscular material by the songwriting team of composer Julia Meinwald (who provided the arrangements and orchestrations) and lyricist Gordon Leary (also the bookwriter). Those playing the committed competitors in the athletic events likewise come across as committed and strong in their roles, although one might wish for a few more very distinctive-timbred voices or accents so each character could be immediately recognizable with every appearance, especially in group numbers with solo lines. (Some moments of anxiety in the plot lead to passages of shrill singing, probably more effective on stage, but arguably justifiable for believability, in any case.)
Shared dreams of glory–to be the famous face on boxes of Wheaties cereal "Like Mary Lou" (Retton, the celebrated champion/role model)–make for a delightful group goal. Standout solo turns include: Allison Posner's lament of frustration about being "Always Almost" at the pinnacle, but not quite there; MinJi Kim's "A Million Other Things," speculating on what other paths her character might have taken; and Holly Gould's reflections about the unwanted notoriety of being known forever as "The Girl Who Fell." A total of nine cast members sing, with the central septet joined in some group numbers by Kylie Lavrenchik, the swing in the company. Josslyn Shaw has a striking solo, "The Perfect Ten," as the presence of a past gymnastic superstar. Additional cast members have the speaking roles of TV commentators.
This well-crafted score is full of mighty Meinwald melodies that capture the stress level build-ups and intense environment without hitting us over the head. Gordon Leary's polished lyrics often shine like those gold medals The Magnificent Seven's characters covet, attentive to unlabored, pure rhymes and alluring alliteration combined with economic plain language. The wordsmith definitely lets this talent show in "Don't Let It Show," as teen gymnasts vault us into rewarding territory: "You can push/ You can pray/ You can keep puberty at bay ... You can swing/ you can swell/ You can put yourself through hell." Here's a sample from "My Body": "My body is a banner/ Waving proudly in the breeze/ My body is a beacon/ Standing steady on the seas." But words for these young people in the heat of battle can't all be oh-so-artfully articulate. Like a good gymnast, lyricist Leary knows the importance of balance. And the songs often successfully employ a device that normally irritates me for seeming to be lazy: frequent repetition of musical phrases and sentences. Here, it is ultra-appropriate and effective, serving as echoed urgings ("You can do it!"), mantras ("That was then, this is now"), pleas to a teammate ("Carry us, Kerri!"). Bravo!
Physical CDs can only be ordered through the show's website. In an ideal world where high-quality lower-profile cast albums would sell in the millions, this look at girls who go for the gold would earn a gold record. For now, it earns respect and recommendation.
With her impressively flexible voice spinning and swirling through melodies with dexterity and daring, Jo Lawry (whose resum– includes touring as backup vocalist for Paul Simon and Sting, doing duets with the latter) is like a vocal gymnast. In her liner notes for her new recording, she addresses the way she "took the plunge" to sing with just a bassist and drummer, remarking that it was "scary, but a good scary, like flying. Hence the title Acrobats (a lucky song choice from the pen of Gian Slater)." Listeners are lucky, too, because they pass the "flying" test with flying colors. Linda May Han Oh on the double bass and Allison Miller on drums are superb co-pilots on the flights of fancy and fabulousness. Bass and drums become brisk escorts, painters of abstract or delicate backdrops, and get some robust time center stage.
Jazzy Jo Lawry sprinkles this, her fourth release, with four numbers written for the score of Frank Loesser's Broadway classic Guys and Dolls. Making "If I Were a Bell" a showpièce de résistance, she takes a long break from the words to use her elastic voice like an instrument which could justify thinking of her version as being rechristened "If I Were a Horn." "My Time of Day" is elegant and graceful and she sighs into a mostly languid "I've Never Been in Love Before" that, before too long, gains momentum until a late appearance of the word "love" on a high, sustained, powerful note makes one sit up and take notice. "Travelling Light," the likably breezy item, cut from the musical, is reunited with the more familiar fare. Fun fact: The vocalist's home town has the same name as a major character in Guys and Dolls: Adelaide. She relocated from that Australian city a couple of decades ago to be based in New York.
Cole Porter's "You're the Top" is a brisk romp that doesn't linger over its litany of complimentary comparisons, while "Takes Two to Tango" is slow enough in its pseudo-sultry approach to embrace its cute humor. Acrobats leaps from adventure to adventure as material is reinvigorated and/or reinvented. Another highlight is Jo Lawry and her two accompanists taking a chance that pays off with a plucky "Taking a Chance on Love," by Vernon Duke, John La Touche, and Ted Fetter from the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky. A song that was added to its score for the movie version isn't on the set list, but might as well be–because its title sums up its very pleasing impact: "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Jo[e]."
Vocal harmony, repertoire variety, and versatility are three reasons to recommend Sonica (a formidable trio of female singer/instrumentalists) and Sonica, their eclectic self-named collection of originals and covers. Nicole Zuraitis, who also is the singer with the Birdland Big Band, is on piano and wrote music and lyrics alone for "Come a Long Way" and collaborated in writing three other included numbers with her Sonica-mates Thana Alexa (percussion, additional keyboards) and Julia Adamy (bass).
The lush vocal sounds and their blissful blend frequently become the most rewarding element. The overall effect can be intoxicating, dreamy and sumptuous, making what they're singing (or singing about) seem secondary. Not everything is equally accessible, but mystique and ambiance count for a lot. Prepare to be initially intrigued, then swept away upon a return visit. Concentrated listening brings words more into balance on original material. In all, it's a brief encounter of only seven tracks.
Interestingly, each of the women is married to a drummer and all those percussionist partners play on the recording: Nicole is wed to Dan Pugach; Julia is married to Ross Pederson; and Alexa's husband is Antonio Sanchez, who is also heard on guitar.
"Doyenne" incorporates spoken lines extracted from Sojourner Truth's famous speech from the mid-1800s, "Ain't I a Woman?" It's still powerful. Sonica also deftly delivers heartfelt magic on a lovely version of the tender, nostalgic classic "Danny Boy" and the entreaty for compassion, "Love's in Need of Love Today," from the pen of Stevie Wonder. Genres co-exist and coalesce.
Stevie Wonder's "Bird of Beauty" (with Portuguese lyrics courtesy of Sergio Mendes) shares the musical skies with the Gershwins' "Little Jazz Bird" that gives a little nod to "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along," along with other numbers all referencing birds on Emilie-Claire Barlow's spiffy Spark Bird. This latest offering in her growing discography (a dozen previous releases, dating from 1998) finds the warm-voiced songbird warbling affectionately in English, French, Spanish, and, as noted, Portuguese. The mercurial mix and small number of tracks (just eight) prevent any sense of the aviary wearing out its welcome.
While "Skylark" is fully bird-centric, directly addressing that fine feathered friend, those bluebirds that find their way "Over the Rainbow" don't get mentioned until the last part of the famous lyric and the "Little Jazz Bird" in question is the human kind of syncopating chirper. "O," from the repertoire of the group Coldplay, is a piece with more weight. Emilie-Claire Barlow, who has done much voiceover work for characters in the world of animation, can be animated or serene. A soothingly gentle sound projects a gentle spirit, enveloped in amiable arrangements (most of which she contributed to) all making for satisfying listening. It's mostly tender and dear, disarmingly unaffected and lilting.
The M.O. is a confident approach with our resident "birdwatcher" sounding relaxed but involved as she sets the scenes. Instrumentation and participating musicians vary from track to track, with guitarist Reg Schwager deserving a thumbs-up for making the most consistently memorable impact. (He's on all selections except one).
The liner notes in an illustrated booklet that comes with the CD evidence Emilie-Claire Barlow's recently increased interest in the different birds she encountered near a house she was renting in Mexico. She'll soon be taking flights herself, on a summer tour that will take her to upstate New York, Japan, and her native Canada. But, before that, perhaps the birds whose praises she sings will return the favor and tweet their serenades to her next week on her birthday. Many happy returns to her and I think her fans will have many happy returns to her recordings and concerts.