This week we have four CDs on our plate and the theme is thoughts of home. Whether it's where the house is or where the heart is, there's plenty of heart in the especially sincere singing on the vocal albums surveyed below.
Inspired by and including songs he used to listen to and love in his own home growing up among his parents' vinyl record collection, Malcolm Gets gets nostalgic and is quite effective, radiating sincerity like a bright beacon in his first solo album. Once again, PS Classics has chosen a theatre performer and come up with a lovely, highly listenable class act of a CD a showcase to act the songs chosenresulting in another fine match of artist and repertoire and arrangements. John McDaniel is at the helmas pianist, arranger, conductor and producerand deftly provides the singer-actor with musical settings that are mostly on the sensitive side. Rather than being restrictive and a slave to strict tempi or getting cluttered with too many "busy" instrumental doings, there's room for our leading man to phrase thoughtfully and linger in moments and react.
And take advantage of the opportunity he doesrenditions are full of realizations and rhapsodic rushes of joy or awe, tension and release. When intense emotions swell, the orchestra or piano swells; when his character is in realization or observation mode, the accompaniment is scaled back or "holds its breath" with him. The ballad "Long Before I Knew You" from Bells Are Ringing is done just with piano and is rather exquisite in its setting and sustaining the tone of appreciation of a love meant to be, with pin-drop perfection. An unexpected choice for another expression of love, "Wait"a song sort of buried in the grand score of Sweeney Toddsimilarly demands attention in an arresting way. There's no wasted, extraneous energy here.
Malcolm's mother's very favorite shows were all by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and he includes two selections from their illustrious catalogue. The King and I's "Shall We Dance?" is a dramatic success taken quite slowly and thoughtfully. Forget getting swept away by the polka. He's swept away by the prospect of infatuation"or perchance" not just a dance partner but even a life partner. It's magic time. Flower Drum Song's "You Are Beautiful" might aim for the same wonderment and idealization, but doesn't find the same crystallization of that belief, as somehow the innocent romantic investment is not sustained. Perhaps it might have worked better if sung in a higher key with more vocal purity; Malcolm has some lovely head tones used quite sparingly and could be capitalized upon more.
An earlier Rodgers tune with a Lorenz Hart lyric, "Ev'rything I've Got (Belongs to You)" provides a much lighter moment, with its smug threats of rage and revenge. And there's a bouncy, buoyant breather via a medley of two cheery Irving Berlin numbers, sung with Melissa Errico who sounds joyful and luminous: "Blue Skies" and "It's a Lovely Day Today."
From more recent times, there is William Finn's "Anytime," the powerfully metaphysical (but thankfully not milked for melodrama and anthem-like potential) number promising "I'll be there." Written for the character Malcolm played in A New Brain, it was cut in previews (but later included in two recorded stage pieces featuring the writer's work). And the album's title song, contemplating that "your heart arrives before the train" comes from the musical Bombay Dreams and is cathartic and grand, treated to a glorious arrangement with the orchestra playing with passion and precision. Passion and precision is what this musical journey is all aboutand a journey well worth the ticket and travel time. And Malcolm Gets seems right "at home" in a recording studio, communicating directly and straight to the heart.
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD
Reflecting on homes and hearths of the past and present, it's a more mature, reflective Kathie Lee Gifford than you might imagine from previous efforts and her image as a chatty, chirpy TV personality. Generally shedding the sugar coating and sometimes (but certainly not always) removing her rose-colored glasses for a hard look at life and self, she presents her own lyrics throughout and acquits herself rather well on the majority of tracks. Earnestness does reign supreme, but she reins in most mush and gush, and what really comes through here is a sadder-but-wiser contemplation of life lessons and questions. The songs, many written/recorded several years ago but not released for personal reasons, are often affecting and sometimes moving. Some are from musicals she has co-written, so they are from characters' points of view, while others seem to be deeply personalconfessional, mournful, accusatory, expressions of religious faith.
With the exception of one track of the baker's dozen, all are collaborations with respected composer David Friedman (who quite often writes his own strong lyrics, notably for some cabaret favorites sung by Nancy LaMott and others). The exception is "This Time I'll Blame It on Love," with music by David Pomeranz, from the produced musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Saving Aimee. Another effective selection from the same music, with Friedman's melody, is the plea "I Want to Matter" (talk about a plain-spoken example of the musical theater category of an "I want" song!). Another musical, In Canaan's Eyes, provides the album's title song: "My Way Home" tells of determination and the power of that "ache deep inside" to return to familiar surroundings "back to where memories are deep as the snow."
Death figures quite dramatically and imposingly in a few songs: laments and perspective ask for a slow goodbye to a father in the role reversal "Goodbye Lullaby"; the haunting story-song of a couple's hollow life after the mysterious death of their baby in "Dungaree Doll and the Ragman's Son"; and a message of comfort to a "Little Baby" born after the loss of the father he'll never grow up with, lost in the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Decidedly maudlin in subject matter, they are a mix of heartbreak and hope, and handled with loving care and sung tenderly. Ms. Gifford rises to the occasion and finds the needed restraint and dignity to magnify the power of what might have been a soap opera tear-fest.
Some platitudes about being happy living the simple life "at home" counting blessings can get too precious or plodding; I'm afraid a couple of songs that go for honesty seem may seem to be self-serving pity parties to listeners with more than a touch of skepticism. Certainly some lyrics are awkward or sticky or uninspired ("Outside there's a storm, but I'm feelin' warm"; "Now here I am in heaven and I haven't got a prayer") and rhyming can be inconsistent with false rhymes ("home"/"alone" shows up twice; other examples of close-but-no-cigar are "else"/"myself" and "firm"/"learn" and "dawn"/along." This uneven work mars some otherwise well-crafted songs. However, the singing of the more serious numbers comes across as heartfelt and Kathie Lee Gifford has a real sense of intimacy with storytelling. Often, she finds a way to make a listener feel at home with her and her feelings or those of the characters she presents.
Home to actress-singer Rena Strober's current character is Anatevka as she is playing Tzeitel in the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Topol. Being in touch with her own family's Jewish roots comes into play in her very impressive CD, Finding Home, inspired by her one-woman musical Spaghetti and Matzo Balls. The first course is the spaghettithe opening track is a bow to her time singing at the Italian restaurant Rao's, where she was around for a shooting as she takes a shot at the love theme from the film The Godfather ("Speak Softly Love"). But those matzo balls come rolling along regularly, singing in Yiddish mixed into that track and elsewhere, tenderly/fervently in a prayer for peace and later saucily (a Yiddish translation of "My Way" with the band slipping into "Havah Negilah"yes, you must hear it to believe it). But this album is not just a series of daring larksmost of it is played straight and is quite wonderful. Rena's clear and strong voice has a lot of heart and is a pleasure to listen to, especially as she enriches her renditions with strong acting chops in a particularly wide variety of material.
Irving Berlin's comic cutie about a member of America's First Family being unsettled at home because of being trailed by "The Secret Service" (from his last Broadway musical, Mr. President) gets some extra lyrics referring to Rena having met President Bill Clinton. She has a field day with this goofy high energy presentation of a bundle of nerves, with the spoken voice of a "secret service agent" warning her.
But it's the tender, serious stuff here that has staying power when the novelty of the language-switching, comic swirl and quasi-operatic grandstanding ("Time to Say Goodbye" with big-voiced Michael Amante) recede. Amanda McBroom's fervent "Make Me a Kite" soars and "Sitting in Limbo" (Jimmy Cliff/ Guilly Bright) becomes a vulnerable expression of uncertainty, beautifully sung. Perhaps best of all is Jeff Blumenkrantz's excellent song "Hold My Hand" with its mix of tender longing and girlish glee, which Rena digs into and nails. She sure makes herself at home with each style surveyed on Finding Home and I find it rather delightful. (An extra track, listed on the CD, is available as a free download from her website www.RenaStrober.com, the audacious "All This Shit Was Meant to Be."
"In your arms, time stands still.
Writes and sings Beth McDonald in "Home," the lilting title song of her third CD. We recently covered the lullaby album (At Last) of this gentle-voiced singer, and many of the same qualities that made that album a sweet glide are generally here: sweet vocals, taste, and a way of usually taking command of material in an understated way without losing musicality or focus. Most of the CD is a pleasure, and the minimalist, low-key approach works marvelously, making this a soothing and occasionally subtly sassy series of songs.
Sometimes, though, it still seems like Beth is singing a love song so gently so as not to wake the baby in the next room, and there are times I wish someone would light a fire under her. Here and there with a number that seems to require some heft, she seems too lightweight. For example, it's hard to make "Cry Me a River" work without either slowly simmering or gloating at the emotional tables turned. The lighter delights in just desserts and comeuppance of "Goody Goody" fare somewhat better. The tropical-climated seductive invitation to "Sway" doesn't sway me enough, as it seems too laidback to feel lusty. But with a generous 17 tracks in all, these somewhat anemic tracks are outnumbered by the ones where the tender touch is much appreciated and works like a charm.
The delicate but savvy singer of Home makes her home in the Washington, DC/Maryland area. She does a show dedicated to the songs of Peggy Lee and, as on her other albums, some of that repertoire shows up here. It is a good fit. With her laser-beam approach, light swing, small but very musical vocal sound and an amiable but sexy wink, the Lee trademarks "Fever," "Why Don't You Do Right" and "He's a Tramp" (from Disney's classic Lady and the Tramp) are neat and sweet and right in the comfort zone. "Waitin' for the Train to Come In" also finds the right groove and attitude, the singer in understated but clear command. Classic Broadway ballads from decades ago, "Don't Ever Leave Me" and "I've Got a Crush on You," glow with convincing romantic loving care and the arrangements for all of these are refreshingly uncluttered and unpretentious.
The highlight of the album is one of Beth's four originals, "Would You Dare," especially with its evocative accompaniment of just Celtic harpgorgeous and transportive. Its lyric brings us back to theme of "home": "Just in case my embrace finds you home at last/ I'll wait for you, as lovers do ..." Another Beth McDonald CD is worth waiting for, too, especially good company for a quiet night at home, this loving voice making it a home, sweet home indeed.