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A bit bitter?
Bitter/ Sweet and The Bitter Mirror

There are some clouds on the horizon in this week's musical skies as we look at two releases—one new one whose clouds have plenty of silver linings and a recently reissued recital with heavier cloud cover, covering the gloom and doom of Brecht and Dylan. Both are better for their bitter and strong flavors and the commitment of their performers.


Harbinger Records

One can't blame someone for being glum and even a little bit bitter when love becomes "an empty smoke dream" now just "Gone with the Wind." But Bitter/Sweet's flavors are more sweet than bitter, offering a balance of the sad and glad aspects of relationships. In his fourth solo album, singer Eric Comstock, who usually accompanies himself on piano, forsakes the keyboard to team up with guitarist Randy Napoleon as the sole, soulful musician. It's a rewarding partnership. The title song—sans the slash—is a melody by Billy Strayhorn once known as "Ballad for the Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters" that was fashioned with a literate lyric by Roger Schore, with Eric convincing in the singing of how perspective and experience can cast a chapter of love as a "Bittersweet" mix of feelings.

The singer, who can be circumspect or wry, shows his more sensitive side in a set of mostly thoughtful, serious ballads with the tasty and tender partnering of this deft guitarist. The vocal/guitar combo serves the songs well and the performances go down easy. It begins with The King and I's "I Have Dreamed" refreshingly presented as quietly ruminative rather than declamatory and bursting with unbridled devotion. And it ends with another look at dreams, "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)".

Overblown and gushing or self-pitying are not the order of the day; there's a certain calm and reserve and emotional restraint here. The readings come off as pensive rather than as passionate pronouncements. However, the lyrics and melodies are presented warmly, with respect and affection. It's an album that wears well upon repeat listenings, ringing with a distinct maturity of thought in the phrasing and elegantly understated guitar work where "accompaniment" seems a woefully insufficient word. Randy Napoleon, in a less-is-more-effective way, often instantly establishes a feel and color and then, with grace and dignity, continues the moods and embellishes them in a subtle way. It's almost like a conversation between the two gentle gentlemen at times; they are on the same page and one enhances the other's work.

Eric has an especially crisp kind of enunciation that could make things feel rather brittle if it weren't offset by his romantic approach to the song as a whole. It works pretty well for this up-close, low-key spare affair, though some lines could benefit from a freer, more relaxed feel that would suggest a stream-of-consciousness flow of thoughts and realizations. A certain wistfulness mixed with sober maturity marks his manner on this album's love songs and keeps this cozy without being fluffy. There are looks at romantic love with longing ("If I Had You") or wondrous appreciation ("A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square") and looks at partings philosophically (note the mostly dry-eyed, accepting—but pained—mindset in the lines in "Goodbye" that goes, "It's time that we parted/ It's much better so/ But kiss me as you go ...").

His persona as a character in the songs is often that of someone who has soberly thought things through but whose heart still feels things deeply. Case in point: Burton Lane/ Alan Jay Lerner's "Too Late Now," presented with its almost point-by-point analytical look at steps and feelings in a relationship, while at the same time reveling in them ("How can I ever close the door/ And be the same as I was before?/ Darling, no, I can't anymore ..."). For a more ebullient moment, Rodgers & Hart's "This Can't Be Love" is a charmer, but doesn't get by on one-note clever smugness. It has an easy-breezy beginning, a dandy Randy solo where he lets loose, and a late vocal section that pumps up the playful energy. As an added deliciously ardent treat, Eric's wife and frequent singing co-star in nightclub appearances, Barbara Fasano, adds her luscious tones sharing the spotlight on "Two for the Road" by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse. It's sung with a wealth of appreciation and looking forward to shared happiness and adventures.

This fine pair—who share credit for all arrangements—arrange to get inside the songs without turning them inside out. Mr. Napoleon, who has been represented on disc with such singers as Michael Bublé and Freddy Cole as well as on purely instrumental albums, is a pleasure to hear strumming and shaping things in this context. And Mr. Comstock's low-key but focused way strikes a nice chord, too.


Motéma Music

Special thanks go to Google for the unplanned reissue of mezzo-soprano/actress/director Bettina Jonic's powerful performances of Bob Dylan songs and Bertolt Brecht words translated from German, with their melodies by Kurt Weill or Hanns Eisler and one by Paul Dessau. Jana Herzen, a singer and the owner of the record label Motéma Music, was looking on the Internet for some song lyrics and found on a message board a few lines from a man whose mother-in-law had sung and recorded Dylan and Brecht material in Europe back in the mid-1970s and wondered if anyone had an interest in reissuing the two-vinyl record set that had never been on CD. Herzen was surprised to see that the artist was a woman who'd once been her well-remembered teacher, Bettina Jonic. The dramatic and dynamic performances are quite a rich rediscovery.

Listening to the 2-CD set is like an intense cabaret concert of in-your-face, face-reality tonics with a two-drink minimum: one stiff whiskey and one truth serum. The songs are mostly sorrowful or challenging with social commentary, several indictments of war and the darker, tougher aspects of life. The protests and portraits and drawing back the curtain on political/war themes bring out the kindred spirits of the two wordsmiths. Rather than have a Dylan disc and a separate Brecht section, the connection comes through as their work sits side by side, track by track on each disc, sometimes a few of one and then the other. All of the Brecht is sung in English.

Bettina Jonic used her voice in different ways on this recording. Sometimes it's a glorious, flexible, full-throttle operatic sound; other times, she rants and rages in a manner suitable to the ire and fire of the tone and the characters, or Dylan's decrying of shame, sorrows and duplicity. She seems fearless in her singing no matter the style, fiercely committed to the tales and troubles of the people presented, especially pungent via the "Song of a German Mother" (Brecht/Eisler).

Those who only know some of the Dylan material in his own gruff, idiosyncratic voice may be taken aback by how they sound intoned by a trained, supple, rangey female voice, but Dylan albums by sweet-toned, high-voiced Judy Collins and Joan Baez in the past, and just recently by Barb Jungr and Janet Planet, have proven that his songs are more flexible and female-friendly. Bettina Jonic's a capella "Blowin' in the Wind" is riveting, and the phrasing that avoids any sing-songy smoothness makes one really listen attentively to the well-known words, the questions ("How many years must some people exist before they're allowed to be free?", etc.) echoing with despair and frustration and renewed timeliness.

Other than that track, the accompaniment is by a small and effective band, occasionally playing for an extended time to set up a mood or tension quite effectively; it also provides some respite from what can be a rather relentless attack and draining, wrenching emotion due to the singer's total envelopment of the material and its pain and anger. A couple of numbers have a minimalist accompaniment of a steady beat like a death knoll that becomes irritatingly repetitive. Some leavening is needed when the words themselves are also pounding you over the head. Tales of bloodied beatings and other horrors and bleakness are potent enough without insistent musical overkill on top of killings in the text. Likewise, the singer is so admirably intense, and her voice so throbbing and full that it does the trick almost on its own; and some of the melodies are more serviceable in delivering the messages.

Mixing lesser-known numbers with the tried and true, like "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Pirate Jenny," the program is interesting. The second disc is more satisfying and varied with some melodies that move more, have real flow, and are less dirge-like. However, this is strong, strong stuff. The Bitter Mirror title refers to holding up to a mirror to society. That mirror's reflection is still valid, sadly, in view of the current political and social upheavals; Dylan's "Masters of War" is no period piece.

I found most of this to be involving. A couple of the very long tracks, topping seven minutes, tested my patience, but overall I was impressed, even if much of this made me feel like I'd been run over by a steam roller.

- Rob Lester

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