Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Vocal CDs:
2 things with strings, one that swings

Here are three very recent vocal solo albums, each with a mix of material, including some show tunes. Michael Feinstein's latest CD finds him in the spotlight with featured solo guitar as accompaniment for a collection of intimately sung, tender ballads. With a real mix of energies and styles, Anne Steele, following several cabaret cabaret awards, comes out with a CD with "strings attached," as her arrangements prominently bring string players into play. Isabel Rose chose a brassier sound for her sassier strut through peppy pop and vamping through some revamped theatre songs. Let's start quietly with Mr. F.


DuckHole Records

Ssssshhh. Cozy up to Michael Feinstein and guitarist Joe Negri cozying up—oh-so gently and gentlemanly—to some lovely love songs, some very familiar and some ... not so much. It works. No stranger to the world of literate, lush, plush, passionate ballads, reliably romantic and reverent Michael is their ideal idolizer and interpreter. He serves the songs well, treating the melodies with attention and affection and singing the lyrics convincingly, even those which might seem in danger of seeming sticky or dated. Agelessly ardent, he can sing of everlasting devotion or the awe of finding love—with earnestness and wonder. And, just maybe, for the time it takes to play this 14-track CD, one can lulled and persuaded that romantic love is all there is and all that matters. Why have your feet on the ground when you can be floating on air? "Fly Me to the Moon": 'nuff said. OK, so there are a couple of stops for doubt and a drop of desperate despair due to loneliness, but they are out balanced by some very, very perfumed versions of coupledom.

Though bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer the late Joe Cocuzzo are there, somewhere subtly sometimes, center stage and playing time is shared with the graceful guitar work of Joe Negri, accompanying, commenting, embellishing, taking solos that extend the mood. Much of the singing is understated, pulled back, so pretty—but so pensively put forth that the sense of emotional involvement and realizations/concerns etched in the vocals' phrasing banish worries of too-calm ballad overkill. The two men are a good balance for each other on the more sentimental songs. Though never at odds with each other, there is sometimes a sense that the singer wants to linger in the land of utmost seriousness and rapture, with the guitarist is now and then edging him along into a subtle lightly swinging move-along with the melody. They meet somewhere in the middle and everyone wins, especially the listener. The guitar solos don't have a vastly different agenda or stray miles away melodically for improvisations. The only track that doesn't work for me is the treatment of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "This Time the Dream's on Me." Taken a bit briskly for my taste, I find the heartbreak of an uneven relationship and the song's bittersweet quality lost in the shuffle. It's there subliminally, but I wish the ache were more palatable. In "Lonely Town" from On the Town, I would also want a little more haunting in the unwanted solitude being sung about; I miss the introductory verse as Feinstein has spoiled us by so often including the known and not-so-known verses to old songs. But these are rather minor quibbles on an album with so much going for it.

Michael's first track, "So in Love" from Kiss Me, Kate, in this simpler, sparer treatment sung with discretionary heart-thumping, trumps his prior recent recording of it. Another Cole Porter number, "Why Shouldn't I?" from the 1935 show Jubilee is another highlight, zeroing in on the yearning, seeming to have more truly at stake in wanting to join the informed crowd to find love before it's too late ("Why wait around/ When ev'ry age has a sage who has found/ That upon this earth/ Love is all that is really worth thinking of"). And, not to be missed, he even finds a moment for more casual reflection with a dollop of light humor the way he delivers the line with the less-than-fancy or hyperbolic adjective to describe the magic of true love, quoting someone who "says that it's good."

What seals the deal—and for some, like me, is the best news of all—is the inclusion of some rarely done ballads by songwriting giants. We have "A Mist Is Over the Moon" (melody by Ben Oakland), with Oscar Hammerstein II's picturesque-to-the-max perfect visual images of nature's elements conspiring for the ultimate night to remember; Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's adorably adoring "Blame My Absent Minded Heart" (from an early Doris Day vehicle, It's a Great Feeling); "A Man and His Dream" by Johnny Burke and James Monaco, a very sweet look at the subject at hand; plus the quaint but exquisitely delicate "While My Lady Sleeps," with the worship-worthy love object on a pedestal (Bronislau Kaper/ Gus Kahn, written for Nelson Eddy).

Call it ballad-heavy, call it heavy on fantasy, but when the time is right for a quiet night and a candle and a kiss—or just really taking the time to appreciate gorgeous songs without it being all about added bells and whistles or the pipes of the singer in fullest array/display, it's hard to beat such a sweet—in the real sense of the word—collection of affection-focused, mood-met music and musicality. (Meanwhile, back on earth, Michael Feinstein opens his annual holiday engagement at the NYC club that bears his name on the last day of this month, going through the end of the year, with time off for good musical behavior on Sundays and Mondays.)


PS Classics

Now that we're done congratulating Anne Steele for winning cabaret's MAC Awards, Nightlife Award and the Bistro Award, and being the first winner of the Metropolitan Room's MetroStar Talent Challenge competition, recently appearing at Joe's Pub, we can congratulate her on an excitingly sung, gratifying, and beautifully produced CD. It's on the label of albums made with much loving care, PS Classics, and this is no exception. It's based on the cabaret show she had produced as part of winning the MetroStar contest and has last year's MetroStar grand prize winner, the talented Liz Lark Brown, on back-up vocals, joined by Sean Bernardi: all three have earned their stripes and displayed their pipes as singing wait staff members at Don't Tell Mama, the theatre district piano bar/cabaret. Using one of the venue's fine pianists, Kenny Davidsen, on keys and to supply intriguing and rich arrangements featuring string players, Strings Attached is something I've grown increasingly attached to. I experienced early renditions of the material in longtime New York singer Anne's award-winning show, late-night wanderings at that piano bar, and as a viewer and guest judge in the weekly summer-long trials in that first MetroStar contest. She always stands out with bright-eyed, beaming invigorating energy, with good looks and goodwill—I'm delighted that so much of it transfers to the audio-only medium.

To be frank, not all the songs in this very mixed bag of styles—with plenty of pop plopped in with more meaty ballads—would normally be my cup of tea in their original forms. But Anne's enthusiasm and personality beams through so much, and the arrangements are so appealing, that the Steele-ing reshaping wins me over. She makes it all fun or fierce or accessible and I'm pulled in or strung along by the strings—violinist Hiroko Taguchi, cellist Alisa Horn and two players in great demand on the Manhattan scene and elsewhere: bass player Steve Doyle and guitarist Sean Harkness, whose accompaniment/arrangement on one track is the sole one where Mr. Davidsen sits out. It's "Move On," Stephen Sondheim's powerful piece from late in the second act of Sunday in the Park with George. It's sung with less forcefulness than we're used to in the musical, but this less fervent/more thoughtful take makes one listen anew to the advice still intense in a less-than-full-throttle manner: "Stop wondering if your vision is new/ Let others make that decision ..." On another well-known number with advice for the unsure from the been there/done that person, "Smile," she seems to have a serenity that comes from having done the struggle and being confident of encouraging someone else: it's not about repression or a Hallmark-y urge to keep a stiff upper lip "though your heart is breaking," but comes off as saying something like, "I got through it. You can, too. It will be OK."

It's fun to hear the early Jackson 5 hit "I Want You Back" with back-up vocals perking along, though I wish it were a bit looser, and taking a page from Patti Page's songbook without Xeroxing it, "Tennessee Waltz" is nostalgic but, thankfully, not so weepy and simple-minded. It has more tinges of realistic loss and surprise, more depth. Who knew it was there? Though some of the lighter moments are fine for fun (the best being "Don't Stop Me Now," a kinetic, infectious treatment of the Freddie Mercury number), there's more deeply satisfying stuff to come. Her kind of trademark medley done at the awards shows, Elvin Bishop's groove-catchy "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" morphing oddly but wonderfully into the classic ballad "My Foolish Heart"—and back—is magnificently done, with wistfulness and dramatic tension and great musicality. It shows off a wide range of the Steele synthesis of styles and genres and strengths. Last but not least (by any means) is a super Davidsen original: "Falling Down," with a satisfying structure, undeniably cooking hooks and real emotion on display by the writer/pianist and this effervescent, very present singer.

There seems to be something for every taste in the set list, and the star seems set for even bigger, brighter things.


The Jubilee Recording Company

Is it an upbeat, good-time record? Can you dance to it? Is she channelling Ann-Margret? Is Isabel belting? The answers are: Yes, yes, somewhat and not much, respectively. A quick look at the cover and title of Isabel Rose's CD makes it look like a bit of lively retro fun, and to some degree it is—rather harmless, fluffy fun with some razzle and dazzle from the band which is, as promised, certainly swingin' a lot of the time. After a fascinating start with the first two tracks that bring fresh blood via switched-up rhythms to Hair's "Aquarius" and Irving Berlin's "It's a Lovely Day Today," set up with a borrowed (and unbilled) few lines of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," things become less interesting. Eventually a certain sameness sets in and one becomes more aware of the smallish arsenal of vocal ammunition, a limited bag of tricks and a few problems. Although things are often fizzy, they start to fizzle out when the persona of playful, pouting sex kitten and strutting sassy gal leads to some swallowing of words, presenting more moxy than musicality, with not such a broad palette of vocal colors. But she has her moments; in Flower Drum Song's "I Enjoy Being a Girl," Isabel is a little gutsier and frantic than the light-hearted, cheery-but-aware approach in the original show (and I don't know that it's necessary to change the line about wanting to be coupled with a "brave and free male" to "a hot and he-male"). Depth is absent, but this baker's dozen of songs don't call for much. There's a place for a splashy, sprightly holiday-from-drama album in the CD collector's library and this is that winking, stop-your-thinking respite with some zing.

But, to quote one of the song title's breezed through, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," we should also make a fuss about the plus side—and I can't overestimate the importance of the band on this disc. It cooks. They are front and center and surrounding the vocalist with lively, energized—and occasionally overly busy—arrangements and playing. There are some notable players like drummers Ray Marchica and Warren Odes, great sax wailing by Aaron Heick and Charles Pillow, with pianist Jeffrey Klitz billed as orchestrator and arranger (with the singer, later, somewhat confusingly being co-credited for arrangements) with one exception, where the CD's producer/ designer, Julian Fleischer, does the honors for a guitar-based rush-through of "Haven't We Met?" that feels as much like the song's cute story of the accident-on-purpose planned meeting as it feels like speed dating. The arrangements and playing are mostly terrific, with a few guest appearances like very popular NYC pianist Tedd Firth on organ for "I Only Want to Be with You" (Mike Hawker/ Ivor Raymonde) and Isabel gets some of that good-time feel remembered from the Dusty Springfield hit version of decades ago.

There are certainly some pleasing qualities in the basic sound of her singing voice that I think could brought out even more. Some more thought and variety might have helped this present a better showcase. Also needed is some care to the credits: two song titles are not quite right, one song written by two men is credited to just one, and in the names of the other songwriters (where only initials are used for their first names), one has the wrong initial, three surnames are spelled wrong, and (for her rollicking ramble "On the Street Where You Live") the team of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner are listed as F. Lerner and A. J. Lowe. On a brighter note—and this CD is musically full of bright, brassy notes—there's pep and positive energy with some familiar songs. "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" is one, but I wonder if this is it—or if maybe the last classic song is a promise: "The Best Is Yet to Come." Time will tell.

- Rob Lester

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