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Bobby Belfry, Barb Jungr, Bye Bye Birdie (w/ bonuses)

We're glad to be in the key of B today: buoyant with a trio and vocalist recording from Bobby Belfry and the Budway boys; blisteringly honest and back to basics with Barb Jungr; and back to the bright Bye Bye Birdie film soundtrack 50 years later, with bonuses.


Bobby Belfry can take a challenging rhythmic assignment and be casually in full command, the notes and crisp staccato phrases bouncing evenly along. And he's playful and joyous. Generally, he's not one to languish or linger over notes much, even on some sad, thoughtful songs, though he has the chops to do so if he wanted to. He does take life in the slow lane for some mushy stuff on "Star Dust" and a "When the Sun Comes Out" that makes it a pity party rather than the fiercely determined mantra some make it. Tenor Belfry has lovely high head tones which are rewardingly effective, and don't stray to the fey falsetto or wispy-weak or territories some fellows find themselves mired in.

Starting in the previous century, I heard Bobby croon and rock out many times as he was (and still is) a mainstay at Brandy's, a piano bar in my neighborhood, and numerous times on the wee-small-hours Joey Reynolds radio program, for which he also wrote and sang the theme song heard each night (or, rather, morning).

One Lucky Day is very entertaining. The album's title comes from a line in the lyric of the old jazz standard "Until I Met You," into which he inserts a Belfry/Budway original, "Say What?"—it's a bit of fleetly-flowing frenzied fluff that recalls the master of such tongue-twisting tricky treats Jon Hendricks, writer of the CD's opening track, "I Want You to Be My Baby." The band members vocally echo his assertive declarations of segments building into the full seven-word title. Varying tempi makes for a pleasing album which ends with a standard take on a standard, "Moon River," except that, just when you think you're sailing merrily, gently down the stream, there's an interpolation of sorrow. Inserted is a bit of Joni Mitchell's so-sad "River."

On this third album, Bobby reprises a song he co-wrote with Christopher Marlowe which was on his debut disc: "One of These Days," also known as "The Apartment Song." It's a groove-filled contemporary dream of idyllic city-living love nests that makes for a snuggly roommate with the classic of its genre, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which follows it. This all-time gem is set up by a generous instrumental intro, with violin, viola, and cello sitting in with the trio to great and lush romantic effect. Belfry freely starts his singing with the chorus, saving the introductory verse ("Many men with lofty aims strive for lofty goals ...") until much later, after another rhapsodic respite with the strings, who also have the last "word" in this divine, nice-and-long arrangement (clocking in at 5:25). The oft-skipped intro verse Johnny Mercer wrote for "I Thought About You" is also placed somewhere in the middle of "I Thought About You" and it provides the inspiration for tempo changes. After a brisk breeze-through, the more ruminating wonderings ("Seems that I read—or somebody said—that out of sight is out of mind ...") gives motivation for slowing down and musing, making the repetition of the chorus suddenly full of loneliness and longing. Then, another acting "beat" on cue and the pace picks up again. Back to the blithe and brisk bounce, Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh's "Young at Heart" is mistakenly credited to "Becker," but rest assured it's that 1953 hit for Frank Sinatra which became the tile for one of his movie musicals.

Throughout, the David Budway Trio pulsates and prods, with Budway a highly skilled and versatile pianist leading the group with his mates bassist Dwayne Dolphin and Thomas Wendt on drums. Besides the aforementioned string players, two sax players also guest and Maureen Budway adds some vocals into the mix. The liner notes mention a couple of times that Belfry & Budway have been working on these numbers for years: the bottom line is that the homework has paid off with an impressive album where the songs still seem rather fresh and quite fully felt.


Naim Audio

Perhaps the packages that Barb Jungr's CDs come in should have a warning sticker from the Surgeon General that they can become highly addictive. She is the rare true artist, mesmerizing, a consummate interpreter. She deconstructs old pop songs we thought we knew and makes them her own reconstituted acting pieces which seem, in the Jungrian alternate universe, the natural way to go. Whether stripping them down to their once-buried or burdened-down essentials, they become more visceral and veracity-drenched. Shorn of repetitive or seductive instrumental accompaniment figures that gave their melodies what hit-hungry record executives call "hooks," we get the guts of the lyric and honest emotion in the melody line.

After recent album excursions delving into the work of Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, and the oeuvre of Nina Simone, Barb continues her looks at the late-20th century rock pile and mixes in powerful material she co-wrote. Like what comes out of her re-shapings of the once-familiar, the originals are mesmerizing. Some listeners may need repeated exposure and some will be hooked immediately by her musical opium. It's a mix of the honesty of her very human voice, which can sound raw or elegant, and arrangements that support the needed moods and thoughts.

The album's raison d'ĂȘtre and opener, the upbeat title song about the "hell of a ride" she's been on, is one of four written in collaboration with her key partner, the marvelously sensitive Simon Wallace. He's her "breathe-together" accompanist on piano and organ, who also produced, recorded, and mixed the CD as well as being a collaborator on the arrangements (with the singer and Jenny Carr). To explain the place names in the title, Stockport is the claustrophobic British industrial town where she lived as a girl in the 1960s, listening to and loving the soulful "Memphis sound" from America that suggested an appealing abandon and richness ("yeah yeah yeah, had to find my way to that dock ... callin' me away"). On this number and elsewhere, she's joined by the potent voices of three fellow Brits who are recording artists in their own right: Sarah Moule, Mari Wilson (who was one of the trio with Barb on her lighter, live and recorded ventures under the moniker Girl Talk), and the terrific jazz singer Ian Shaw. The harmonies are also enriched by Barb's own overdubbed additional vocals. And the atmosphere-adding harmonica playing is by our leading lady, too.

As on her The Men I Love: the New American Songbook CD, Barb graces some work by iconic singer-songwriters and makes them her own, unblinking, explored truth-tellers. Neil Young's commiserating comparisons to the life of an "Old Man" (where Jenny Carr ably takes over piano duties), Sam Cooke's promise that "A Change Is Gonna Come," Hank Williams's lament about being "Lost on the River," and Tom Waits's number about trying to keep the Devil "Way Down in the Hole" mix despair and hope in varying balances, all rewardingly so. Joni Mitchell's desire for a "River" seen as an escape "to skate away on" has become a downbeat blue favorite on Christmas albums recorded by pop-oriented performers because of its opening line about the season approaching. Unlike most of the versions I've heard, Barb bravely shifts emphases in the lyric and melodic line and finds something new, without disrespecting the integrity of the piece. And she takes one more crack at the Bob Dylan songbook, laying her own feminine mystique on top of what might seem to be an unlikely candidate, "Lay Lady Lay." (In the multi-page liner notes, it's explained how she came to interpret a song she "used to hate" and think of as too much "macho" and present it as a woman recalling and ruminating over a past lover's words.)

While the familiar classics may be comfort food enriched by Barb's bold approach, it's the originals that give the album even more gravitas and hypnotic spin. "New Life" is inspired by not only her own leaving home and adventure-seeking (also referenced in the atypically zealous and rollicking title song), but the escape routes of her parents and grandparents from various war-torn countries. Pulling something out of her musical attic, she brings back a number co-written with a longtime past partner, Michael Parker, with "Till My Broken Heart Begins to Mend," with a less complicated ambiance and mindset than her mature writing crystallized in another number with a similar cardiac-crack reference point: "Sunset to Break Your Heart," with all its wistful, wiser hindsight ("When I think about it now, I want it so much more/We didn't know on the day we met how we'd feel when it all fell apart").

Busy Barb is about to make one of her treks to North America, starting tomorrow in Indianapolis and Tuesday in Toronto (with her Dylan hat on) and then it's New York City for a Joe's Pub concert on March 13. Then, it's back to Britain, but it's clear that her travels from Stockport to Memphis (she admits to never quite getting to the latter city!) to America and back home again is all a direct route to a willing listener's heart—via her own.

ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK (with bonus tracks)

Masterworks Broadway/Sony

Yes, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie is now half a century old. It's a conveniently happy if sobering milestone, cuing another issue of the soundtrack on CD. Its first issue mirrored the first release from the days of vinyl. A reissue a decade ago first added a few items also included here. This time around, there are three additional tracks: the "previously unreleased"/ "film version" of "One Last Kiss," making for a total of three different versions of this number on the disc, all sung by Jesse Pearson as the title character, rock & roller Conrad Birdie, which he'd played in the national tour. Another bonus track also results in the album having three versions of a song by the same artist, the title number written for the film, where Ann-Margret burst on screen, bookending the film with different sets of lyrics. The 45-rpm single version of the number takes a different attitude, with her winkingly taking on a childlike pouty voice, grousing about Birdie's taking flight. She's joined by a plucky screechy-voiced chorus, reinforcing the title line and interweaving the score's little fan club anthem, "We Love You, Conrad." The little record (just over two minutes in length, which is still longer than either film version) was arranged and conducted by Billy Strange, who did similar duties for this star when she was paired with the real-life icon on whom Birdie is based, Elvis Presley. A poppy version of Ann-Margret's character's introductory solo, "How Lovely to Be a Woman" with a simple, insistent instrumental figure anchoring the Don Ralke arrangement he conducted himself, is a fresh take on the phrasing, though not vastly different. It's fun and zingy.

The repeats kind of make me miss again the numbers cut from the Broadway score and, now that intervening years have added songs included in later recorded versions, the brew feels thinner, if still bubbly. We're again reminded that, though Dick Van Dyke had the chance to repeat his Broadway role, he lost a few of the songs he was in. But it's great to hear him again and likewise to have Paul Lynde recreate his Broadway role as the flummoxed father of the sweet Sweet Apple, Ohio family.

The movie version's sound has a spiffy and juicy sound that embraces and tickles the Charles Stouse/Lee Adams score. It's its own unique delight: at times lush, at times having a grand time spoofy the trademarks of rock & roll teen culture of the era, and providing swell little showcases for some of the players (like the additional lyrics for Bobby Rydell and others in the six-minute version of "A Lot of Livin' to Do"). With some varying lyrics also in "Kids" and elsewhere, there is some unique material here, in addition to the different flavor. Musical supervisor-conductor, the major figure Johnny Green, found a splashy way to brighten and heightened and cinema-tize the songs. He also orchestrated many of them (colleague Albert Woodbury, who did five of the orchestrations, was duly credited on the original pressing, but his name is nowhere to be seen in this latest issue, despite credit to others and a booklet with a bunch of photos from the movie and a brief history of the original show and film by CD reissue producer Didier Deutsch).

While many of us have as our warm and fuzzy reference points being cast in a school production of this oft-produced show and exposure to the Broadway cast album before seeing the movie over and over (count me in on all experiences), the ready availability of the movie and its soundtrack recording have their own memory-ticklers. It sounds bright and brash and buoyant all over again. The score, truncated or expanded with alternate version bonus tracks, is always reason to—if I may borrow one its song titles—"Put On a Happy Face."

- Rob Lester

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