Sound Advice Reviews
Married mates and music
Let's check in on some married folks. Post-wedding, there's some wear and tear on bliss for a fictional pair we meet in the concept album for the two-person musical Regretting Almost Everything. The group Franglais is represented by the real-life couple at its center with their duo recording. On the last item, singing is by the eponymous Jeanne, with songs written by her husband.
REGRETTING ALMOST EVERYTHING
As almost everything that is sung about in Regretting Almost Everything reminds us, marriage can be a bumpy journey with no reliable road map; couples can get lost, detoured, or find themselves seeking the exit ramp. But listeners won't regret going along for the ride to appreciate the personality-filled performances by Jeff Blumenkrantz and Beth Leavel as husband and wife, and the songs by composer Danny Ursetti and lyricist Lauren Taslitz. Much emotional mileage is covered. In "Behind the Wheel," each spouse is vexed by the way the other drives, but it's the issue of their mismatched sex drives that becomes a more serious roadblock to contentment. Expect humor, human foibles, frustrations, and neurotic tendencies in the picture, as well as focus on appreciating children (summed up succinctly as "Life is monumental/ When you go parental" in "We Made Kids." As time flies, a granddaughter named "Elle" is celebrated sweetly, too. The plot thickens when absence may or may not make the hearts grow fonder when the wife goes off on her own for a job in another state.
While she can effectively dial back the brashness for numerous tender moments, Beth Leavel's big voice is also at the ready to suddenly burst forth in exasperation or build from simmering thoughts to a crescendo. This serves the material well, whether the unleashing be about expressing desire for attention, a car, a reconciliation, or an affair. "No, I Don't (Yes, I Do)" sees her character see-sawing back and forth in being honest about whether or not she wants a lover. Jeff Blumenkrantz as the more low-key protagonist invokes sympathy in his quiet introspective turns, with wistful memories of "Fatherhood" and attempting to convince himself that "It's Normal" for passion to putter out. He lets loose with the gleeful assertion that "The Baby Likes Me Best."
With its writers mentored by William Finn, Regretting Almost Everything grew from some individual songs to public presentations of an evolving, expanding score and this concept album, without a fully staged production yet. But lyricist Lauren Taslitz, with her own decades as wife/mother/now grandmother and starting a new career in a new state alone, also has taken on the task of writing its book, and some of it is heard here. Some lyrics are plain-language conversation or musings. Some show heart-on-sleeve sensitivity, some have wit, and a few include an expletive that rhymes with the latter ingredient.
There's variety in the melodies by Danny Ursetti, who also did the arrangements and most of the orchestrations for the eight-member band conducted by its pianist, Paul Staroba, that features a string quartet. He is also in the group of minimally used background vocalists.
The project's website has more info on the writers and recounts the development of the musical and the recording, taking a particularly engaging, appreciative, and humble tone. Some of that, including the plot synopsis, are in the packaging of the CD format. The exposure of the piece through this recording heralds a compact musical ripe for production, with broad appeal, so I won't be surprised if we see Regretting Almost Everything everywhere all at once.
FRANGLAIS (À DEUX)
There's a cozy, laidback intimacy and directness in delivery on the new release called Pairings. Singer Eve Seltzer and rhythm guitarist Ben Wood, a married couple, usually are part of a group known collectively as Franglais, but their new recording finds the usual suspects pared down to just this pair (except for one track). The repertoire reflects pandemic realities when their performing outlet was stay-at-home presentations of material for fans via Facebook by just the two of them–or, as the French would say–"à deux." The group name was inspired by a trip to France and the influence of guitarist Django Reinhardt's style.
It's fine listening: undemanding, unpretentious and straightforward. Ben Wood keeps a steady, sturdy pulse and gives the songs real drive, but can be subtle when the lyrics need shading and warmth. Eve Seltzer adjusts her approach to suit the moods of the material, sighing into the lonely lament "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and investing "Save the Country" with urgency. (This one is the exception to the strictly-duo approach with the added contributions of Dallas Vietty on accordion and second guitarist Justin Lees.) Sailing through melodic lines, the singer indulges in some pleasing scat-singing here and there and bends some notes, although vocal attack is so glaringly pronounced on some highlighted pitches that it can be a bit unexpectedly jarring.
The performers dive into the eclectic set that also includes two Seltzer originals, two versions of the jazz mood piece "Stolen Moments" (acoustic and electric; look for the CD or digital offering that includes the alternate as a bonus track), and the old Yiddish song "Joseph, Joseph" aka "Josel, Josel." The Broadway-born song choice here is one that Franglais' fellow jazz artists have also favored over the years, "Too Close for Comfort" from 1956's Mr. Wonderful. It swings. Evidencing more sentiment are a few items from the early 1940s, two of them written for films, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer: "I'm Old Fashioned" (music by Jerome Kern) and "This Time the Dream's on Me" (music by Harold Arlen).
Weather permitting, Franglais has a steady outdoor gig in Manhattan on Thursday nights on the plaza by the Lexington Pizza Parlour at Lexington Avenue and East 101 Street.
With a decidedly sweet tone, the pretty and pillowy sound of Jeanne (who chooses to be billed just by her first name) can be like the comfort of a soft handkerchief for dabbing at tears that come with the territory of sad songs or an extra layer of satin for smoother tales. The airy, light timbre is youthful, well suited to the breezier and brighter selections on the self-titled Jeanne with gossamer glides through the music and lyrics of her husband of 11 years, Brian Gari, who's been releasing collections of (mostly) his own work for many moons.
Listening to the cute 1960s pop-styled "I Want Your Boyfriend" and "I Wanna Be Her," you can almost see her shake her hips and head as her ponytail bobs along. (The latter is co-written with Jeff Olmstead.) The contented sway of "We're on the Same Page" is more musical comfort food. The cotton candy can be addictive. Otherwise, Jeanne and Jeanne's preponderance of generally gentle, reserved approaches and a meringue of layered sounds result in a definite dearth of oomph. Some potential misery is muted; in sagas of strained romances with couples living apart, she cautiously clings to hope for a reset, as in "Don't Give Up Your Key." And "He's Not Home Yet" (music by David Shire) chronicles the patience and impatience of the waiting game, while other numbers focus on the dating game.
It's not all quiet despair or fluffy fun. For something richer and more fulfilling, the standouts are the affecting "A Man & His Music," a potent portrait of disillusion and disappointment and the story-song "Clara's Dancing School" from the 1987 Broadway musical Late Nite Comic.
Justly proud husband Brian Gari and Peter Millrose are co-credited as arranger/producers, also lending support with instrumentation and additional vocals. Also adding touches are background vocalist Janet Kirker, sax player Jason Kendall and violinist Maria Grigoryeva.