Sound Advice Reviews
Music from Micky and from Myriam
Picture it: New York City, summer of 2015. Here he comes, walking down the street called West 54th, is he getting the funniest looks from everyone he'll meet when entering one of the city's hottest nightclubs? He doesn't sing that peppy theme song from the Monkees' TV series, but Micky Dolenz does reprise plenty from their repertoire. Dolenz, whom John Lennon greeted as "Hey, Monkee man!," and who first came to some fame as TV's "Circus Boy," was there to perform, the act recorded for CD release, and here it is. Tempus has a way of fugiting: the still-peppy Dolenz turned 70 this year. This album shows him as almost ageless in energy and spirit, performing before an enthusiastic crowd with an unpretentious attitude.
In addition to periodic live dates reviving his old group's three-year initial blaze of pop charts/television glory, and latter-day recordings under the Monkees moniker, he's moved on to other projects. These include solo albums (I'm a fan of his lullaby album, cutely called Micky Dolenz Puts You to Sleep), some directing, and some musical theatre work. While the material on A Little Bit Broadway, A Little Bit Rock & Roll perhaps surprisingly doesn't represent any of those scores, here's what shows he did: on tour, there was Pippin and Tom Sawyer with fellow Monkee Davy Jones; on Broadway, as cast replacement in the mid-'90s Grease revival and later in Elton John/Tim Rice's Aida; in London (where he was based for a dozen years), Hairspray.
I breathed a loud sigh of relief when I realized that the act's title wouldn't mean that we'd get irreverent, misguided rock versions of old-school show tunes. Most of the rock comes from the old Monkees songbag, but there is a fun romp with the more contemporary snap, crackle, and pop of Urinetown's smartly smug (or is it smugly smart?) survival-of-the-fittest message, "Don't Be the Bunny." It's a good fit and a refreshing choice. It seems to win points with the audience, too, judging by the audibly happy response.
The musical theatre material is well served and definitely personalized. After teasingly strutting with an operatic bombast for the line of South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening," he cools down for a successfully communicated low-key version. The nicely focused performance of this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is Broadway-cum-cabaret intimacy at its best. The sage advice of an experienced man delivered with a caring approach to the lyric's philosophy about handling a fated meeting starting with locked eyes, "Once you have found her, never let her go" feels sincere, heartfelt, and from direct experience. Best of all, it follows the suggestion that nightclub pros like Marilyn Maye teach in master classes: it's richer for the audience when you make your delivery about the audiencereaching out to them and their feelings with your message and point of view, not just simmering in your own emotions and memories. It makes me wonder what he might do with the same songwriters' analogous "Hello, Young Lovers" mix of empathy and reminiscing about valuing stages of romance.
With musical direction and album production by spot-on pianist Michael Moritz, Jr., the other theatre-born numbers deliver nicely, too. Maltby and Shire's grown-up "One of the Good Guys," which the singer addresses to his wife as the show draws to its close, is highly emotional. It's the real deal here, the feelings shown with a heart-in-the-throat catch and true tenderness. Set up by an anecdote about taking one his four daughters skating once when he was recognized and mobbed, and soon after while consciously in incognito disguise, "Mr. Cellophane" is far lighter. While we see through the flimsier set-up, and the Dolenz experience referenced can't hope to have the self-pity of the character context created for this Kander & Ebb Chicago showpiece, it's clearly a highlight anyway. The Gershwins' "But Not for Me" is introduced as a number his mother used to sing, and so he is in Mom memory mode, even briefly indulging in a re-creation of how she sang it with a strong Billie Holiday inflection. I miss these two songs' usual pangs of pathos, but they do work well as entertainment and a chance to let us get a sense of Dolenz as son and parent. And that's worthwhile in this situation.
The accompanying patter, while loose and lengthy at times, also shows his ingratiating personality, both warm and down-to-earth, even self-deprecating. While not pushing for laughs, he is fun and friendly. And, yes, the talk segments are tracked separately, and there are spoken comments before/after every song, until we get to the cozy encore, "Pure Imagination," seeming almost as sweet and satisfying as the Chocolate Factory candy bar from the world of candy man Willie Wonka.
Satisfying the audience's expectations of hearing Monkees hits, we get several. The nostalgia works without blatantly pushing buttons in a sticky or pushy way. They sound energetic and far from tired. While the band offers some vocal support, one misses the fuller upfront blend as well as the studio polish and gleam, and the youthful vitality that came with the 1960s versions. It's the kind of thing probably more joyful with the in-the-moment, in-person experience, but these aren't by any means weak versions of strong rock potions. An admitted Monkees fan, if a casual one, among my list of what some might call guilty pleasures of a misspent youth of vinyl and TV gorging, I enjoyed these reprises. Another ride on the well-fueled "Last Train to Clarksville" is worth the trip.
The patter and credits in the little booklet emphasize where there's a theatre connection to material, including instances when something began as a pop number and was incorporated into a production years later. This allows Micky to be less picky about whether a song was written for the theatre and have the best of both worlds' choices to rock out without deserting his show's theme. And when the selection found its way to theatres and was not just a rock item but recorded by The Monkees, the rock rendition means killing three birds with one stone. For example, there's "D.W. Washburn," which is done on theatre stages as an item in the Leiber and Stoller rocking revue Smokey Joe's Café. Taking the temperature of the room, he checks out the crowd by asking the audience to indicate where they know this opening number from.
"But Not for Me" is just listed as being from the production of Crazy for You, rather than its origins in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy that inspired that decades-later mixed bag of Gershwin pieces that indeed began as a more literal revival of the property that had Ginger Rogers introducing the lonely lament.
It's also an oversight not to point out that one of the bubble-gum-ish Monkees' rare pointed commentaries on society, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (Carole King and Gerry Goffin), included on the set list, is included in the Broadway musical tracing the songwriters' career, Beautiful. (Introductory patter drops the name Neil Sedaka as one of the tunesmiths who'll be represented, but nothing by him is included on what made the album). We do get the Neil Diamond-penned "I'm a Believer" (a Monkees hit also heard in the film and stage versions of Shrek). Another Diamond number that is among the group's best friends is his song that is referenced by the act's title, though it isn't on the list either: "A Little Bit Me, A Little You." Or did those of you with similarly long memories think it was a reference to the theme once employed by a couple of other TV smiling stars, Donny and Marie Osmond's self-descriptions as being "a little bit country ... a little bit rock and roll"? No matter, there's more than a little bit of everything for generations old and new here.
And, coming full circle, there's a nod to The Beatles, the group whose vast popularity and first film inspired the manufactured-for-TV group assembled of actors who didn't at first play their own instruments or know each other. Thus, in a snarky nickname that stuck, when compared to the British mega-stars known admiringly as the Fab Four, Dolenz and mates Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, and Davy Jones (who died three years ago) were dubbed The Pre-Fab Four. But the groups did meet and hang out in the studio together, which Micky blithely talks about here, and takes on a Beatles piece. His choice is "Oh! Darling" and, like the other snuggly and endearing renditions on the disc, it is darling, and not merely because of stoking the embers of old memories that feel good. But, yeah, there's that, too. Very much.
By the time Voyages' vocalist Myriam Phiro ends her recital with "In My Life," the Beatles gem with the reflective look back on "all these friends and lovers," I was already sold. While she might not be long enough in the tooth for the full potential of the poignancy of the perspective to hit, the versatile young singer (she sings in English, French, Spanish, and Italian on the disc) is a pro with a special sound. The talented mezzo mixes her potions well, seemingly an old soul as she sounds ensconced in a comfort zone with these other numbers, all of which are older than "In My Life." Without sounding self-consciously coy, there's a playfulness and eye-batting charm about her approach. She is disarming. Best of all, she sounds like she's well acquainted with the quainter items without sounding overly influenced by or aping those who came before her with the well-traveled classics on Voyages' set list. While the lengthy liner notes repeatedly refer to others who have recorded them, she and Vinny Raniolo, her invaluable arranger, music director, superb guitarist and co-producer, generally strike the right chords when finding a balance between respectful renditions and new ideas. If not newly minted, they have a freshness that shoos any worries that they'll come off as stale standard items.
This is Miss Phiro's first full-length album. This French-Canadian performer, whose earlier EP focused on French material (she's also performed in live shows saluting Edith Piaf, whose centenary is this year) starts here with a French accent also on song selection. Her opener is Cole Porter's love letter to a city he adored like the character who introduced it, as this modern mademoiselle embraces his "I Love Paris" from his score to Can-Can. It also sets up the CD's theme and raison d'etre: her love of travel and imbuing the material with lessons and influences and associations connected to her eye-opening globe-trotting.
Italy and its language are represented by the old mega-hit "Volare," an entry in a worldwide song contest that went, in today's worldwide web parlance, viral. I wasn't looking forward to this track, being somewhat allergic to the song. Or so I thought. It's usually done as hard-sell sing-along schmaltz; I was surprised at the tenderness that's brought to it here. Another oldie that's been over-exposed and is typically overheated and underwhelming to me, "Besame Mucho," is a success, too. Winning me over via a simple sincerity that strips away the heavy sultriness the Spanish plea for kisses is usually cloaked with, we have a more innocent take. What was once sweaty is sweet. (It's interesting to note, as the liner notes do, that its songwriter Consuelo Velasquez penned this before she had been kissed.) A multi-ethnic diversion is the novelty number with nuttiness potential, "Tico Tico." Myriam jumps into it with joy rather than goofiness, so it's less a comic tour de force. We smile instead of laugh.
The singer is also a trained actress and dancer, having toured in heavy (The Crucible, Macbeth) and light shows, played the title characters in Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, been in Jacques Brel Returns and Hairspray. She's a graduate of AMDA.
Other locales are name-dropped in song titles like "On a Slow Boat to China" and the jazz favorite desert-based dream of a "Caravan." Disappointingly, there's a paucity of the expected mystery and delicacy of the encounter with that "strange, enchanted ... but very wise" fellow recounted in "Nature Boy." I may be missing something in what's aimed at in the more casual and smiley approach. Is the Boy seen as some guy she met in her travels, a pleasing and sexy diversion, rather than a deep and life-changing interaction gifting the receiver with that powerful message of "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return"? Bittersweet or sad emotions are not strongly etched in these interpretations, mega-lovely though they are. Her "Skylark" is not as lonely, nor is the persona of the observing narrator of Johnny Mercer's lyric, although it and Hoagy Carmichael's melody retain some haunting and wistful qualities. The singer's sound and professional skills are major compensations for any lacks in the drama department throughout the album.
And the musicianship and performances of her guitarist and the others are sublime. The always adept and intriguing John di Martino, a jazz standout, is at his best here as sensitive piano partner. His commentary style, punctuation, and emphases, as well as some soloing opportunities, are all very much in the pocket. He's very satisfying to listen to on this disc, and never strays into esoteric territory. Drummer Rob Garcia finds subtle structures along with bassist Nicki Parrott. She is a blessing with her very present work and strong contributions, including some harmony vocals; she is very much a fine singer and instrumentalist, as recent work she's done increasingly illustrates. On several tracks, Adrien Chevalier is present with especially enriching violin work. Guest Robbie Klein's vocals and trombone help make "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" one of the excellent CD's most engaging standout tracks.
Myriam Phiro's captivating vocal stylings and choices are instantly attractive and reveal even deeper enjoyment factor on repeat plays. Hear how she shades and floats on "It Had to Be You"'s words " ... others I've seen might never be mean, might never be cross or try to be boss." She makes her voice sway and spin like a dancer. In moments when she hums, which is just filler for many singers, the elegance and beauty of the sound makes humming a highlight. The voice is liquid and lyrical, never heavy or pushed. Rather than steamroll or march through a melodic line, her voice in visual terms can be like a butterfly: it darts here and briefly alights there, takes to the air, unpredictably exploring levels high and low, yet remaining fragile and free.
She herself will land briefly in Manhattan for two Tuesday sets on October 6th on Broadway at West 51 Street at Iridium. Yes, it is now "Autumn in New York"to name-drop the beautifully done Vernon Duke piece that's also here and thus conveniently states the season and city for this official CD release event. This is the kind of album you want to keep in the player for frequent voyages, to sample Voyages' many pleasures. It's good company.