Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The newest A New Brain, Carol Lipnik, and Sam Broverman
Reviews by Rob Lester

A new recording of A New Brain, a not so very old score by William Finn, comes our way, based on last year's Encores! presentation of the piece. And we consider Carol Lipnik's newest, plus new tracks from crooner Sam Broverman.


PS Classics

For a musical that is truly about matters of life and death, written by a man who faced the actual dire medical crisis in real life, A New Brain is quite life affirming and splashed with daring humor.

These qualities are particularly highlighted in the new (second) recording of composer-lyricist William Finn's score of his 1998 musical. Finn followers and fans of the earlier cast recording will note that the tunesmith and bookwriter James Lapine did some rewrites here and there and that this two-disc set has the full show, with about 15 minutes of material that wasn't on the old single-disc release. This fuller audio experience is another bounty brought to us by PS Classics, a label with a track record for putting out records with more tracks and making completists more completely satisfied. While both releases have strong and distinctive-sounding actor-singers, the voice types and interpretations here are mostly quite different than CD buyers heard before, so it's not just a case of similar but longer.

The album, in bright and rich sound, was made in a studio this past October, following the staging at New York City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center series (the "Off" meaning looks at Off-Broadway shows of the past, rather than the series' popular slate of Broadway oldies given concert productions). The ten-member cast, with one substitution, preserved their committed performances. Dan Fogler had played the peppy TV character—an uber-cheery singing frog—that main character tunesmith Gordon writes for in his day job, but Fogler being out of town on a project at recording time necessitated him being replaced. The choice is a terrific one: Christian Borle, Something Rotten!'s flamboyant, show-offy Shakespeare hops to the rescue to play the gleefully goofy frog, bringing wackiness to brighten the doom and gloom and angst. Borle's performance nails the force-fed sunshine and oppressive optimism that children's entertainment can have.

Jonathan Groff is our central character, the hospital patient Gordon who is looking at brain surgery and maybe looking death in the eye. This actor's innate likability and boyish demeanor makes the character's bursts of anger and frustration all the more understandable and sympathetic, and not at all tough on the ears as it might have been if he played the rage card more forcefully. While his voice is not so rangy and resonant, the gentler sound works for the predicament. A listener can become engaged, rooting for him and feeling bad for him when he doesn't get the support he needs. We care when Gordon doesn't get satisfactory answers or the best of care and we have no trouble sensing his panic when he learns that there's "Trouble in His Brain." Groff successfully switches gears to convincingly adopt different energies and attitudes depending on whom he is addressing—the relationships and comfort levels are different with each character.

The tension with Gordon and his lover Roger, played by Aaron Lazar, is palpable. With a voice type and timbre a very different color than Norm Lewis' on the earlier cast album, his work here is a clear non-clone in other aspects, too. Lazar may go too far with the diffidence and distance; or maybe it just "cheats" a listener who might long for his bigger sound displayed in prior roles. His vocal on the score's best-known number, "I'd Rather Be Sailing," may be tame and not soar and gather strength as expected, but it is arguably a valid reading to emphasize ambivalence and a certain chilliness. Ana Gasteyer is an appropriately forceful presence as Gordon's mother, with crisply expressed attitudes and platitudes that have good intentions for outwardly projecting hope and bucking up, based on little concrete evidence. Denial and determination dissolve into defeatism and a temper tantrum in her "Throw It Out" as overwhelmed Mom lets it all out and seems to throw in the towel.

There are some entertaining doings here with Josh Lamon and Jenni Barber as the attending nurses who are as different as night and day. Despite getting relatively little to sing, the rolling tone of Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker in the Ragtime Broadway revival) is a gratefully acknowledged addition. The cast is completed by Bradley Dean as effective dad and doctor; Alyse Alan Louis as a peppery co-worker, sounding board and pal to our hero; and—last but not least—Rema Webb as the brash homeless woman who is a frequent reminder of how others suffer and survive. Scrappy yet wise in her own way, she bears witness and teaches. This comes through, but not in a heavy-handed, preachy way. An extended sequence near the end wherein she, with no compunction, proceeds to sell Gordon's discarded books back to him at two bucks each is a well-played scene stressing the ongoing absurdities of life. Her air raid siren of a voice wears down all who'd do battle and there's something loveable about her chutzpah that adds to the comic antics.

Finn veteran Vadim Feichtner is pianist/conductor/music director of the super septet. This is very good news as he turns in his usual dynamic and attentive work anchoring the crucial musical accompaniment and architecture. Reminding listeners of those who contributed vocal arrangements, additional vocal arrangements, and orchestrations feels like name-dropping: they include, respectively, Jason Robert Brown, Ted Sperling, and Michael Starobin. And in a small band, it's quite special to have one chair filled by a player handling the atmospheric French horn (she's Nancy Billman).

The booklet includes all of Finn's witty and wistful words, photos from the production (many full-page size). A photo session was added to include pinch-hitter Borle cavorting gamely in all his green-headed/gloved glory, plus a plot synopsis and reflections by the composer-lyricist.

A New Brain sparkles with life lessons that are there for the taking. This is a grown-up musical about choices and being present, knowing our needs and gaining perspective and priorities. In a strange way, it's a sobering adult parallel with The Wizard of Oz, focused on what its Wizard-seeking characters wanted: besides the obvious wish for a properly functioning brain, it showcases courage and, as its rollicking but encouraging song states, we all need "Heart and Music" and a longing to have a sense of home with newly appreciated loved ones. Gordon's journey may have no road of neatly placed yellow bricks, but it's an adventure well worth the trip once again.


Mermaid Alley Music

I've been spending time with Carol Lipnik's latest CD, Almost Back to Normal, but, after listening to the unique CD straight through a couple of times, I felt so pulled into the spell being cast that was drained and it took some time before I really felt (almost) back to normal. Unlike many vocal albums that can be diverting or dazzling, this one grabs you and won't let go. Its effects linger. A bit unsettling and smashing one's defenses to resist being pulled into a true Wonderland rabbit hole where everything feels oh so different and unpredictable, I almost feel that the CD should come with a warning label about side effects: that the ground and sense and sensitivities will seem to shift, dizziness may occur from being helpless against being hypnotized and haunted, with possible lingering sensations of depression and addiction to the disc. I mean this all as a compliment to the hefty power of the singer's charisma. Her unusual sound, her four-octave voice, radiating both beauty and raw anguish simultaneously, can make us surrender and simply marvel.

Lipnik is quite new my ears, although she's put out several albums and gotten much recent attention and praise for live performances. The words, mostly her own, take a backseat in the initial exposure to her non-commercial compositions that can seem either deceptively simple or elusive. The album is rightly described in its marketing as a collection of "art songs." They have a rarefied air, but eschew traditional or formal structures in many cases. In this ambience of echo-y, layered soundscapes that evoke a dreamlike state, diction is sometimes sacrificed and words can be tough to fully catch without concentrated effort. My mind rebelled from that needed toil because I just wanted to ride on the winds of her striking voice as it coos, whoops, wails, and provides ballast.

Some of the original pieces (a category fitting almost all of them) are more accessible than others, which can be more amorphous. Wisely, the CD begins with a compelling and inescapably riveting "Oh, the Tyranny." Despite its bleak ambiance, it's simple enough to not be off-putting. "Honey Pot" follows, with a chorus of layered and very high-placed vocals and a seductively joyous melodic hook that instantly recalls some of Laura Nyro's groundbreaking and memorable work. It shifts tone a few times, as if to defiantly refuse categorization or predictability. Later come more challenging pieces. Some have an almost minimalist approach to lyric with brief lines repeating over and over, perhaps slightly varied, almost mantra-like. For example: "I'm not coming down from the treetop," and "You can't make me come down from the treetop," and "You Can shake the tree ..." (in the song "Crow's Nest"). But the variations in color and sound make them strike the ear as more dense.

The grandly poetic and metaphor-drenched "The Oyster and the Sand" is compelling and complex, yet the points made are clear. In referring to broken glass, the word choice of "shards" is so much more dramatic and effective than the plainer option "pieces" would have been. Another sharp image is the descriptive phrase "coat of iridescent splendor"; one can imagine it rivaling and then surpassing the glory of Joseph's less amazing technicolor dreamcoat. A fragile sensibility fused to an emboldened strength give an engine to "The Things That Make You Grow," inspired by Tennessee Williams. Another selection, "Lost Days and Souls," gives a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. You get the picture now that this is no big ray of sunshine, but more a wiling wallow in despair and darkness. Nods to Kurt Weill's relentlessly harsher side and sideshow oddities feel like familiar if grave friends. (It is no small footnote to reflect that Miss Lipnik grew up in Coney Island in times when it was largely deserted and neglected.) The atmosphere reminds me of Cabaret's Sally Bowles embracing the "divinely decadent" and I can imagine ghosts in wispy clouds or cobwebs of the eerie musical threads.

In the category of other writers' work being interpreted, she sets poet Helen Adam's "Farewell Stranger" to her own melody for an effective outing. She makes Harry Nilsson's old "Life Line" from The Point her own plaintive, more desperate cry for help. The album ends with "Troubled Waters," a bridge to an older era of music via a mix of mea culpa and courting salvation that was sung by none other than Mae West in a long-ago film called Belle of the Yukon. This Arthur Johnston/Sam Coslow collaboration has occasionally been taken up by jazz artists. It's a satisfying conclusion to a remarkable album that nevertheless will be an acquired taste for many, even distancing for the reluctant. But no one can deny that it is striking—if only strikingly different—and that the voice's range and how it's exercised are remarkable. Carol Lipnik can affect a high, achingly pure, pearly soprano, get dark and dusky, swell with strength, or opt for the vulnerability of a wounded bird eking out a trill. She can break a one-syllable word into several notes, throw a curveball with a sudden fearless leap over octaves for her own kind of yodel or wailing cry of shocking pain.

The provocative vocalist/songwriter shares the power and time with her two instrumental partners who sometime alternate their time in the spotlight, echoing or providing a kind of call and response see-sawing that also serves as needed mini-respites from her vocal intensity. It's smart and accomplished teamwork that feels organic. Matt Kanelos plays a concert grand piano (in fact, a Steinway from 1895!) as well as other keyboards (including an electric one) and he shares credit for piano arrangements with the singer. Jacob Lawson, also the CD's producer, plays some additional keyboards as well as making a key contribution with mesmerizing, adventurous violin work and back-up vocals.

The full effect of the very original and iconoclastic Carol Lipnik demands the visual element, costumed and, as you probably guess, dramatic. A sampling of videos can be found on her website, but New Yorkers can get the in-person experience in downtown Manhattan on the East side at the intimate Pangea where she has an ongoing residency every Sunday, and on March 17 she has a return engagement at Joe's Pub. Theatre fans may well want to join those flocking to this very theatrical performer. Call it a cult following, call it a one-of-a-kind magnetism, but I am pleased to call it to your attention here.


Digital album

Six songs were released a few weeks ago by Canadian vocalist Sam Broverman. Increasingly assured, this latest work is smooth and suave. In the tradition of the great male singers of an earlier era, he's more on the sweet than swaggering side, suggesting an amalgam of icons, rather than aping one particular role model. He has an easygoing appeal that has its own affable charm and low-key energy that does not drift into lazy blandness. There's an understated joy in singing that manifests itself with a hint of cheerful mischievousness.

At his live concerts celebrating these renditions, admission price has included a free hard-copy of the work. That is the format that came to me, complete with artwork on both sides of a cardboard sleeve, but so far, Feelings of Affection's half-dozen titles are just offered online as an mp3 album. And all are worth hearing and have refreshingly unmannered singing and attractive arrangements, mostly trio accompaniment led by deft pianist Mark Kieswetter. (He is especially affecting on the tenderly supportive treatment of "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman.)

Two famous selections with lyrics by Johnny Mercer serve as follow-ups to his Mercer album I reviewed a few years ago. With the prodigious output of that lyricist, he didn't get around to them then, but they are welcome friends here: a pensive reading of "Days of Wine and Roses" caressing Henry Mancini's melody and "That Old Black Magic" with Harold Arlen's music nicely treated, too.

The title song from the Broadway musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is a burst of buoyant joy that, as most pop renditions out of context do, sidesteps the deeper side of the lyric's metaphysical elements in the story about ESP and reincarnation and connection to the tapestry of history. As usual, it works on its own terms as a romp. It brings out Broverman's bright side.

He sounds a little less at ease with Michael Franks' tricky and laidback, jazzy "Underneath the Apple Tree" which demands a looser feel to fully ease into its hammock of lushness. Musicians and singer seem too tentative. But the main agenda of cool and mellow moods is outlined. Sam Broverman proves himself as a nifty songwriter on a cheeky original called "I Want Everybody to Love Me" wherein he takes on the pose of a self-congratulatory guy literally singing his own praises. He cutely starts out protesting being branded a narcissist, proceeds to pat himself on the back as ultra-likeable and people-pleaser, then takes an unexpected twist of endearing romanticism. It's in the tradition of classic well-crafted songs that have a clever payoff bringing us back to one-on-one love matching.

The Broverman phrasing is mostly skillful, natural and thoughtful, showing in-the-moment involvement, offering a man who is feeling and observing at the same time. And I'm pleased to observe all that feeling in this newest, unpretentious endeavor.

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