Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Spotlight on Songwriters
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here's a look at recordings where the repertoire selected was all written (music and lyrics) by the same person. We start with one born 136 years ago this past week, but whose songs are always with us: Irving Berlin. The material is presented by various performers, including Brian Gari, a singer-songwriter with a CD of his own as the final entry in this week's column. In the middle of this sandwich we have Janet Planet (a vocalist who sometimes writes her own material, too) with a recording of material about perspectives on life's challenges by a behavioral psychologist.

Garret Mountain Records
CD | Digital

With enduring classics such as those in the film White Christmas, or the score of Annie Get Your Gun, and numbers Fred Astaire first sang and danced to, standards written by Irving Berlin stay on the radar for many people. But so much of what he created (more than 1200 songs!) remains below the radar, especially things from his early career. Here's the latest in an entertaining and historically valuable series of collections of newly recorded renditions with a mission to change that.

Despite its title, this 2024 release is not strictly Rare and Unrecorded Irving Berlin Songs. In fact, among its 29 selections there is better-known fare, including some in the categories mentioned in the first sentence of this review. Betty Buckley delivers a majestic "White Christmas" and other numbers heard in that movie are here, too: "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" is suavely crooned by Brian Letendre; and Ann Kittredge's joyful "Snow" segues into a surprise as the tempo slows, with the melody paired to a lyric about people being "Free," planned for Call Me Madam. Anita Gillette combines Annie Get Your Gun's peppy "I Got the Sun in the Morning" with the blithe "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)," one of two numbers written for Astaire movies of the mid-1930s. The other is "Let's Face the Music and Dance," given its due dignity by Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock.

Not to take anything away from the fine above-mentioned covers, but for the curious and the collector, it is the bevy of buried treasures that will spark the most interest. These solos and duets present vaudeville-styled razzamatazz, quaint and quirky character numbers, and some sentimentality. The booklet's extensive liner notes, which include facts about the performers and songs, pointing out the selections that have never been recorded before. Two such debuts, both sung with accents, are the crisp and catchy "Molly-O! Oh, Molly!" with Alexander Craven deftly adopting an Irish brogue, and "Angelo," with Joan Jaffe's comic smarts spicing up the Italian seasoning in this grousing about the titular louse she's ready to leave ("You make-a me sick... When I say I'm-a gonna, I go...").

There are some nice touches in song assignments, such as giving a duet written for mother and daughter characters to an actual mother/daughter pair: Lisa and Julia Franklin on "Wait Until You're Married." (The musical it was intended for, in 1966, was never completed.) And a spunky number, "It All Belongs to Me," that belonged to the star Eddie Cantor in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 is revived here by Cantor's grandson, Brian Gari, in a spirited duet shared with the album's curator and producer, Chip Deffaa. The recording's youngest performers, circa college age, vary in skill and polish, but generally evidence a comfort level with the period style. Early-career performers alternate with long-established pros such as Steve Ross (with a moving rendition of "Russian Lullaby") and Stephen Bogardus (embracing the perspective of a child's doting dad declaring "You've Got Your Mother's Big Blue Eyes," a 1915 ditty).

The participants include many who've been part of Mr. Deffaa's past recording and stage projects about real-life show business figures of yore. There's the vivacious Jon Peterson (his go-to guy to play George M. Cohan) and likable Michael Townsend, who was cast as Irving Berlin himself as well as the father of a brood of children in The Seven Little Foys.

At the keyboard for most tracks is Richard Danley, well versed and well traveled in providing period-perfect piano accompaniment, flavor, and apt tempi. With violinist Andy Stein present on several arrangements, there's added atmosphere, flair and flourishes. If you listen in track order, you'll find the six songs about dancing grouped together.

This series on Garret Mountain Records keeps dipping deep into the Irving Berlin well and drawing delights for us to drink in. Bravo!

Stellar Sound Production
CD | Digital

One of my very favorite versatile vocalists, Janet Planet, has an eclectic repertoire with live shows and recordings that illuminate any songwriter's work. She has addressed standards by such masters as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mandel, did two full albums dedicated to jazz treatments of Bob Dylan's oeuvre, pens some of her own material, and often turns her talent to creations by writers she knows and admires. Some are fellow Wisconsinites. Hope Springs contains seven pieces with music and lyrics by Susan Weinschenk, an author and psychologist, with pensive and profound reflections on coping and hoping when we are dealing with the worst of times. Heartfelt and heartening, it's a compact set of philosophy and encouragement set to music, delivered with the utmost sincerity and warmth by the elegant-voiced singer. What could be better than a trusted, supportive life coach coating truth with sublime honeyed sounds, sailing through pleasing melodies?

Writing or singing advice is a noble goal, but such endeavors could risk sounding pat, preachy, or simplistic. Lyrics about perseverance and keeping faith can stand a better chance of coming across as empathetic words of wisdom if we know the writer has been through tough times. That's the case here. The liner notes state "Susan Weinschenk composes songs based on her own life experiences, as well as ideas and inspiration that comes to her." Elsewhere, the writer publicly elaborated, stating: " These songs were written over a two-year period. Some of this music came out of despair and hope from a year of my cancer journey that happened at the same time as the COVID pandemic." The results are moving, but there's no wallowing in self-pity or the kind of personal detail diary or vocabulary that would prevent commentary from being relatable in a more generalized way.

Words, like the melodies, are unpretentious but effective, sometimes using a device favored by lyricists over the years of references to Nature and weather to represent bad times and better times. In the wistful "Once Again," which reminds me a bit of the folk song "Oh Shenandoah," the striking a capella beginning sets the scene tersely with "The sky is gray/ The rain is falling/ My heart is heavy, like the clouds/ Sometimes I wonder if I'll make it through the trials..." A reflection on "Winter" begins with a long, haunting instrumental introduction, then we hear mentions of the dark, cold and snow, followed by the patient "We'll wait for the spring" and the assured "We'll make it through the long, long night." So, the hope in this Hope Springs selection is literally the season of spring, but elsewhere "spring" is a verb as in the adage "Hope springs eternal."

The soothing title song begins, "When things look darkest and you grow weary/ When you feel lost and alone/ The road is too long, the path too winding/ There is no clear way to go/ That's when the light shines..." Rather than plodding and glum, the melody is economical and–surprise!–words such as "weary" come on high notes so they soar instead of feeling on-the-nose heavy or descending into dreariness. Other numbers center on joyful times, wishing love and peace for the listener, and references to personal relationships.

These contemplative performances are emotionally impactful, with the convincing balms and laments accompanied by moody but mostly spare instrumentals by an on-target quartet that includes the project's coordinator in the studio, saxophonist Tom Washatka, the singer's frequent collaborator (and husband).

If you have a friend or relative beset with struggles and in need of hope, Hope Springs is the ideal gift. It also can be the go-to self-help refresher course for the rest of us. Janet Planet's life-affirming sensitivity and invigorating musicality are always the right prescription for a mood elevator.

Original Cast Records

Singing his own songs again in his latest collection, Resurrection, Brian Gari often seems to be gazing in the rearview mirror. The past is frequently the lyrics' subject matter, recalled with a sigh, with rue, or with the evidence of a not-quite-healed scar from a broken heart. There are flavors of sweet nostalgia and lingering bitter tastes of memories, too. Some selections are redolent of teen-friendly pop musical styles of the 1950s or '60s. Two numbers were been written years ago, intended for his scores for musicals–"On the Plane Ride Home" for Love Online and a duet conceived for a draft of what became Late Nite Comic, his Broadway credit (that one is shared with his wife Jeanne Gari). The CD ends with a brief instrumental segment that was part of a demo from way back in 1968.

Much is low-key and/or melancholy, with references to tears, death, self-doubt, and unrequited love. There's some respite from this and some froth, but the singing overall is modest, which can work for the vulnerability or project an amiable Everyman persona. While some pieces are enigmatic and open to interpretation, others are direct and frank, feeling like slices of life, such as the concern in realizing "My Hands Are Looking Old" or wondering if he is "Way Off Base" about thinking what the object of his affection might feel about him. While there may be a sad-sack quality in some presentations, there's also sympathy engendered for some of the hurts and painful memories of love that turned sour.

The title song has intriguing metaphysical overtones. Excepting the bonus track, credits for instrumental accompaniment, arranging and producing are shared by Brian Gari and Peter Millrose, the engineer.

With language that sounds familiar and honest, rather than foudroyant, listeners may find some real connection in Resurrection, and feel an urge to cheer–or cheer up–a survivor.