Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

2 soundtracks & 2 singers
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's lend our ears to a couple of films about times of high emotion. In one, we witness a couple's marriage beginning and ending. The other tackles the horrors of high school. Then we have collections by two female vocalists: one in tribute to an admired performer and one choosing material written by those sharing her heritage.

Milan Records

There's passion aplenty in the songs and performances on the recording from the film Tomorrow Morning. Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks star as characters experiencing two life passages: the eve of their wedding day and then their divorce 10 years hence. As the film seesaws back and forth between the two points, so does the 16-track album, bringing more than an hour of vocal power and pathos with singing duties shared by the two musical theatre veterans. Only one other cast member is heard from: Fleur East, playing a friend, participates with personality on three selections.

With music, lyrics and book by British writer Laurence Mark Wythe, Tomorrow Morning has many yesterdays behind it as a stage vehicle. The contents of the score have morphed majorly over 20 years. A 2002 demo credits two people for additional lyrics, but their billing disappeared along the way. There are cast recordings of productions in 2006 (London), 2008 (Chicago), and 2014 (Austria, translated into German). Numerous other mountings in various countries that didn't get recordings include one in New York City in 2011 at the York Theatre. Scan the song lists for the various recordings, and you see that they keep changing, with quite a few additions and subtractions for each album. Many of those numbers are "divorced" from the movie's list and some new ones have joined the ranks.

If you're looking for all-stops-out power ballads of the sob-throb-crescendo and catharsis type, you've come to the right place. It's intense heart-on-sleeve stuff with decidedly direct, plain-language lyrics. There's gung-ho lung capacity to deliver the sturm und drang of the waterfall of melody, and much here is in high gear. There are exceptions for the most pensive passages for ruminating ruefully or recalling specific romantic moments. Samantha Barks shows vulnerability with "It Was Here in This Corner" and Ramin Karimloo finds even more variety, with several breathy or nuanced sections that reveal the character's hurt and heart. And while several numbers start at a low ebb as thoughts are gathered, soon the storm gathers, too–and you may feel like a musical meteorologist sensing it coming a mile away. The lovestruck moments can be grand in their own whirlwind way.

The most effective pieces are "Wild" in which the husband looks back on the glory days of his youth, the couple's prideful "Look What We Made," which lets them bask in their mutual appreciation of their child, and the uplifting final number, "All About Today." That one, a strong endorsement of a carpe diem philosophy, endorses leaving the unchangeable past in the past and keeping one's focus on the future. And that's a healthy message to end with, as a chorus reprises the words and melody on note of optimism.

Warner Music Group

It just got more real. Springing up again are the teenage offspring of iconic monsters. The youngsters who previously appeared as plastic dolls from the folks who brought you Barbie (Mattel), then characters in books and on screen in various animated projects, are reincarnated in a new live-action film–with songs! (There's more of the similar in the animated genre, too, in a series of episodes about to launch.) Monster High: The Movie with its flesh-and-blood singing actors materialized earlier this month via Nickelodeon and Paramount+. Audio of the songs from the film is available now in digital/streaming form.

Have no fear: While the movie has some screaming and scares (and humor, too), the pop-styled songs themselves (11 short tracks) are more about delivering typical teen angst with frenzy and fluff, determination and doubt set to dance beats, as well as the lagniappe of underlying serious messages. They concern diversity, inclusion, self-acceptance and self-empowerment. Those are driven home with no room for subtlety in the ensemble affirmation "No Apologies."

Miia Harris, as the girl who is half human and half werewolf, starts things off, leading "Coming Out of the Dark," effectively blending hope and hesitation in her vocal sound. Ceci Balagot and Nayah Damasen join her for spunky bonding in "Three of Us" as, respectively, Frankie Stein and Draculaura. The intent is to show a strength-in-numbers sisterhood, but the number loses strength because the voices are so similar.

These songs, contributed by Matthew Tishler, Jeannie Lurie and Andrew Underberg, among other writers, are often plagued by false rhymes outnumbering real ones. Here's a taste, from "No Apologies": "No one's built quite perfectly/ But who cares, I am everything I need./ Fitting in is overrated/ So don't just play some part./ Never copy, duplicate it/ Just be who you are." However, your inner tween may find some harmless fun in bopping along to the catchier tunes, glib guilty pleasures of a kind, while championing the underdogs under pressure.

Village Jazz Cafe
CD, Digital

Although singer-pianist-songwriter Blossom Dearie passed away in 2009, her influence on other performers continues to be felt. More than a dozen of them (from several different countries) have put together shows and/or recordings as tributes. WIth Blossom-ing!: Celebrating the Music of Blossom Dearie, Roberta Donnay becomes the latest, and it's a good match. That is evidenced by the way she successfully channels the late lady's sweet, small sound and implied-smile style. Smoothing out edges of slinky sultriness and brash elements sometimes a part of her musical persona, a dialed-back Donnay here has a tender tone. Without feeling forced or like an impersonator relying on disrespectful exaggeration, the timbre captures the endearing Dearie voice, which was often described as airy and "little girl"-like.

There is also a close-but-not-cloning M.O. in the styling of the songs themselves, respectfully modeled on the Blossom blueprints. For example, the approach to the comically demanding "Peel Me a Grape" retains the restraint, as opposed to the fun ferocity of Lainie Kazan's volcanic version or Diana Krall's languid lingering over lyrics. Likewise, "The Party's Over" from Bells Are Ringing gets a brisk swing that suggests a stoic's ease in waking up and smelling the bitter coffee and moving on. That will surprise those who only know this standard done in the more standard way that takes a cue from the Broadway musical's moment when the central character is deflated and disillusioned. But it is quite like the tempo and offhand attitude presented on the album Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green.

Fans of showtunes will find four more included on Blossom-ing!: "Just One of Those Things"; "Someone to Watch Over Me"; "If I Were a Bell"; and "Put On a Happy Face." Two contrasting pop songs about attraction by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh appear, getting appropriate moods: the boiling-over/lusting-after declaration "You Fascinate Me So" and the mix of modesty and wonder in the self-addressed "It Amazes Me."

Blossom Dearie spent time working and living in France, so there's a nod to that with some things included among Roberta Donnay's 16 tracks, like "Plus je t'embrasse," which is a French lyric using the melody of the sentimental song from the 1920s called "(The Gang That Sang) Heart of My Heart," but with no relation to the English words. "A Paris" is also sung en fran├žais and is one of three selections with a Dearie co-writing credit. "I Wish You Love," which began as a French piece, is sung with its familiar English words, sincerely projected with every warm wish. (The CD package lists the wrong songwriters, instead indicating Johnny Mandel and Morgan Ames, responsible for the creation of another ballad sensitively rendered here, "Unless It's You.")

In-the-groove musical accompaniment offers versatility to either match gentleness with gentleness or urge more muscular swing, with jazz pianist/arranger Mike Greensill leading three more musicians and two guests (who appear on one track apiece). Mr. Greensill is a very welcome and sturdy presence, as he was on all those albums for all those years with his wife, the late vocalist Wesla Whitfield. (Singer du jour Donnay is credited as co-arranger and producer here.)

It's nice to see (and hear) that the school of singing taught by class act Blossom Dearie, has alumni.

Zoho Music
CD, Digital

When you've made a debut album that salutes your Italian roots, singing some old songs largely in your ancestors' language, what do you do for an encore? The answer: Skip a song-generating generation or a few to collect some mostly familiar material written or co-written by Italian Americans! And so Vanessa Racci follows up her 2017 release called Italiana Fresca with the almost-all-in-English, very lively Jazzy Italian. The jazzy settings are decidedly accessible, lush and/or lively, with a band featuring nine different instruments, including brass, flute, and congas. There's lots of festive energia and there's the coy approach to romance as well as amore taken more seriously.

Vivacious Vanessa is good company as she digs into her repertoire, but some might wish for a wee bit less glee at times. With some fast-flying lyrics, she would benefit from more careful attention to diction. There are no showtunes here, but two selections were created for film musicals; their melodies were composed by the prolific Harry Warren, the son of Italian immigrants. (It would have been more apparent that he was Italian if he had stuck with the name he was born with, Salvatore Antonio Guaragna.) The evergreen about finding love "At Last" (words by Mack Gordon) luxuriates in its unrushed tempo, seemingly bathed in bliss that bursts forth after the contrast of the (rarely retained) introductory verse that serves effectively as backstory. "September in the Rain" (lyric: Al Dubin) casts the vocalist singing as a reflective narrator and the piano as full co-star, played in ways that simulate the lyric's references to the way "the leaves of brown came tumbling down" and how "the raindrops seemed to play a sweet refrain."

Pianist/arranger Steven Feifke (also Jazzy Italian's producer) shapes these Warren warhorses and seven more pieces on the 13-track set. These include an appealing treat called "Come Home with Me" which Vanessa Racci wrote herself, and the contemporary confection by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey that is as clever as it is cozy, "A Lifetime or Two." Another Feifke assignment is the one choice that is a direct import from Italy, and it is sung in a blend of the original Italian and English. "Nel blu dipinto di blu," also known as "Volare," was an international hit voted as Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the first-ever annual Grammy Awards. It's a kinetic party-time arrangement. The dark-hued outlier in the set is the torchy despair of "I'm a Fool to Want You," made famous by Frank Sinatra who is credited among its writers. It begins with a device that can be risky and just too melodramatic: earnestly speaking words meant to be sung. It's a bumpy ride that flirts with overkill, but is redeemed by some sensational singing moments at the end as well as in handling those same words spoken earlier.

The standout among the four tracks with Glafkos Kontemeniotis as pianist and arranger is a refreshing treatment of Henry Mancini/ Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" that flows with many twists and turns, rather than the typical unadorned wistfulness and yearning.

James Gavin's articulate CD liner notes trace the history of most of the numbers and let us get to know more about the singer, too. However, compared to published sheet music and indications on earlier recordings, there are some puzzling omissions and substitutions in the songwriter credits on the back panel of the packaging. For "You're Everything" only Chick Corea is indicated, and not Neville Potter. Mitchell Parish wrote the English version of "Volare," but instead of his name we see "D. Martin," presumed to mean singer Dean Martin who had his own hit with it. "Betcha I Getcha" lists jazz instrumental stars Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke while other vocal renditions give nods to a few writers not named here.

Jazzy Italian is often juicy and jubilant, sometimes extra bold or spicy, with a fine variety of ingredients, like a good Italian meal–with not much overcooked and without the calories.