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A couple of couples:
Love and Marriage Makes for Music


Stage Door Records

The high profile of the high life and high hopes that later crashed and burned are all part of the musical tracing the courtship and partnership of two who helped make the Roaring Twenties roar: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Theirs was a short ride and not a happily-ever-after marriage. Although released with the full cooperation of the writers, these are actually demo recordings made before the stage production, to secure financial backing, to approximate the way the score would sound. Divorced from its stage needs, the score about this attractive couple and their mutual attraction has some attractive tracks to be heard in these "concept" renditions. It's a belated look at Beautiful and Damned, long in gestation and short in its run in Britain in 2004.

The first half-dozen tracks mostly feel like fizzy, frothy samples of very competent 1920s pastiche: the image of the carefree insouciance of the jazz age. It's sweetness and light, like starting with several servings of highly-whipped lemon meringue pie before the big meal: 24 musical tracks in all. It's disappointing in this case that the lyrics don't often rise above a serviceable level to be gorgeous and rich, and the music often fails to further elevate them or let them sail on a high plane of emotion. Still, there are enjoyable tunes in the first tracks especially, like the flirty "I'll Meet You at the Ball Tonight" and the idealistic ode to Zelda's overwhelming beauty that bests Nature's, "Beautiful Magnolia." Later, the title song seems to try too hard to wear its self-satisfied heart on its sassy sleeve, ending with—in case you missed it or its tone—the word "damned" seven times. The song evoking the mood of and setting up the writing of the novel Tender Is the Night ("Oh, How Tender is the Night") falls short of the drama and more poetic palette of the old title song of the movie version. Other songs feel rather pat or occasionally melodramatic without the weight to support them, but there's a number called "So Long" ("Leaving New York") that captures the confidence and optimism of its moment. Others have potential that makes one wish they could be judged in a more theatrical spotlight.

The album ends with three recorded-live bonus tracks from the production (more on these later). These three songs are also heard in the main part of the album where the songs are performed by the writers and three female performers. This show's British writers (described on the cover as "two of the greatest songwriters of all time") have had their hits here and abroad, with other songwriting partners, but collaborate here for the first time. Composer Les Reed has done a few stage musicals and is perhaps best known for some hits by Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, and Roger Cook was inducted into the Nashville Hall of Fame, contributed a pop hit that became the catchy Coca Cola commercial ditty, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," and other golden oldies like "You've Got Your Troubles." They've got their troubles with this show, which they and their producer, in the liner notes, aren't shy about admitting was savaged by the critics half a dozen years ago. Its hoped-for transfer/future was aborted, along with any plans for a full cast recording. As presented here, very little has the ambiance and style of a vibrant "theatrical" cast album, with the less-than-knockout vocals and synthesized sounds. (Accompaniment is credited as just "keyboards," all played by Mr. Reed—until we get to those three bonus tracks. When there's what's listed as a "choir" singing, it's often just the two songwriters' voices multi-tracked.

Roger Cook takes the major vocal duties on almost half the tracks of the main menu, singing the role of Fitzgerald and, on one song each, as Zelda's father and a waiter. He has a light and gentle, somewhat wispy and almost ethereal vocal sound which doesn't bring much muscle at all to what sometimes needs to be an in-control, dynamic character; the good news is that his full-of-wistfulness voice is just fine for the plentiful dreamy, yearning, rueful moments. Les Reed has no vocal solos. Katie Humble, Carole Cook and Lorna Bannon provide the female voices, sharing the role of Zelda.

As for the cast performances, there's quite the contrast, for various reasons. They are stage performers cast for their strengths and recorded live. Also note they are more grandly dramatic simply because two of the three songs are from the end of the saga when the couple has been through the mill and separated, then reunited. Zelda is in a mental institution and Scott is well into alcoholism on their duet "Even Now" where they admit they still love each other. In her solo, Helen Anker as Zelda weeps and wails through the searing pain of mourning the "Golden Days" of the golden couple they were while faced with the current ugly realities of being in the hospital, feeling desperately lonely. The performance has integrity and the actress seems—no pun intended—fully committed and the ravaged dreams and dashed hopes and desertion are almost nakedly palpable. Michael Praed is less florid and more introspective in his singing, but both take long leaps into longing; his solo is the "Oh, How Tender Is the Night" number mentioned above. There are broad strokes in the work of both, but the material may demand or court that.

Those wanting more info and stage flavor with visuals might wish to look at the website—it's intriguing subject matter certainly. With a sentence or two, the booklet helpfully puts each song into the context of the storyline but gives only the first line of each lyric. Listening, a few words here and there can be hard to catch, but many of the melodies are catchy and we catch some of the intended atmosphere.


Loose Garment Records

The married team of Connie Pachl and Jim Conant are a nice little double ray of sunshine with their good spirits in music and unpretentious manner, which extends into some bits of loopy humor for the "Mayhem" in the alliterative title of their CD. Both sing (mostly Connie, taking the lion's share of the vocals), guitarist Jim adds some harmonica, and she does a bit of percussion. It's by and large a small-scale affair, with tasteful and non-showy guitar accompaniment and a bunch of good old songs with a good, old-fashioned sense of just simply singing—singing one piece and moving on. No fuss, no muss, no drama. As evidenced on disc in the past, Connie Pachl has a luscious tone and a bright, clear sound. She had a memorable solo CD some years back, with some splendid renditions of theatre songs, and has appeared in the series of recorded Broadway by the Year concerts. She is also—with Jim in the small band—on the cast album of the show dipping into the nostalgia well of songs from and about World War II, When the Lights Go On Again. This is a looser, often low-key presentation and less theatrical than her past work might lead one to expect. Many tracks are satisfying, but this CD doesn't show her full range, vocally or dramatically.

It's no surprise that they appear to be enjoying each other's company, musically and personally, attuned to each other. Connie's voice is most satisfying when really digging into a lyric and melody line, luxuriating in their strengths, and there is some classic material here of various genres and eras. The floating, serene tones on a number like "Sleepy Man" from the musical The Robber Bridegroom find her at her best and most thoughtfully loving. It's a major highlight. From a few decades earlier, Rodgers & Hart's classic, the voluminously recorded "My Funny Valentine" from their 1937 Babes in Arms shines, too. Pared down here, shorn of any sentimentalized glop and slop, it's taken more seriously, not sounding like someone trying to tease the loved one about his warts and all-but-endearing appearance and manner. And the guitar accompaniment brings some in-the-moment tension and tautness, rather than being all about being blithely serene. They throw away their cares on "Who Cares?," the CD's closer, from the Gershwin brothers' score of Of Thee I Sing. It's appropriately light and breezy and solidifies the mutual admiration society and self-contained kind of "all-we-need-is-each-other" message in this album.

Now for the "Mayhem" quotient and some liberties taken throughout to lighten up or "refresh" or maybe "modernize" some other oldies: To my ears and sensitivities, there are some tracks that suffer from an attack of the "cutes." A song co-written and performed by another married couple (who were also a blonde singer and her guitar-playing husband), Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour, "I Don't Know Enough About You" has a chunk of charm, though a few lines half-spoken with misguided attempts to be coyly edgy and sassy ("I'm nobody's fool" and "No buttons on my shoes") are overplayed and don't land for me. Likewise, there's so much labored playfulness and shtick in "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" that it nearly overwhelms the material. Replacing the simple but effective, slangy use of the word "baby" after the title for the song's addressee with "my my my my baby" ("my" kind of pronounced "mah") and adding in other little bits and attitude might seem harmless fun to others, even mild "mayhem," but it doesn't seem to comfortably suit Connie whose strong suit is sincerity. And it doesn't let her use her voice to much effect. Yes, I know others have played fast and loose having a field day with Dorothy Fields' lyric about being short on funds and long on affection—for example, Fats Waller and the cast albums featuring it in the revue of material associated with him, Ain't Misbehavin'. Coincidentally or not, the song "Ain't Misbehavin'" itself (Waller/Brooks/Razaf) opens the CD, with Connie and Jim both on vocals there, also trying for a cool, playful vibe and not adding or subtracting much from previous interpretations. Better suited for mayhem and mirthful mischief are two other tries that work rather well, one of which is Connie's all-stops-out hammy "Peel Me a Grape," using a thick accent and a comical strutting sense of entitlement. Subtle it ain't, but it ain't half bad; it really is fun and a different twist that works. With Jim taking the lead on the vocals, the country-flavored wink about falling instantly in love with someone and finding out what you have in common is being the "Same Kind of Crazy" is delivered with a convincing sense of goofballdom and glee.

Two Bob Dylan songs are on the set list, "Forever Young" and "If Not for You," and they are OK if a bit easygoing when they might have mined some more drama. But they make a strong case for Dylan accessibly entering the repertoire with his own chapter in the Great American Songbook of standards. And they're gracefully sung with instrumentals that don't oversell them but are simpatico with the vocal approaches. From the pop world, it's a page from The Beatles that succeeds best: a truly lovely and understated but passionate vow of "I Will," with both contributing to the vocals. Conveniently, the title also suggests the traditional marriage vow. And let's hope this well-matched musical married pair will vow to bring us another CD soon. Even with quibbles and tracks that don't bring them to their maximum bests, I'll take them "for better or for worse."

 ... Next week, we'll look at the just-released cast album for the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles and more theatrical endeavors.

- Rob Lester

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