Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Considering Catherines & a Katherine:
Wuthering Heights; vocalists Russell & Farnham
Reviews by Rob Lester

Come spend some dramatic time with Heathcliff and Catherine (aka Cathy) and her same-named child (in a musical adaptation of a classic novel), followed by visits with singers Catherine Russell and Katherine Farnham. It's worthwhile listening all around.

Broadway Records

Appropriately intense and haunting are the performances on the London cast recording of Wuthering Heights, an adaptation of Emily Brontë's gothic novel, effectively musicalizing passion (oft thwarted) and incidents full of fiery family dynamics, cruelty and deaths. Brought forth by Wise Children, adapter/director Emma Rice's company, what we hear feels committed and compelling. Their Wuthering Heights played London venues, toured, was filmed for streaming, and will come to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in October. The full-length show is not a sung-through affair, as many a melodramatic musical tends to be. In fact, the songs are neither long nor numerous and considerable playing time on some of the nine tracks (yes, only nine) is given over not to lyrics, but instead to successfully atmospheric instrumental passages and/or the chorus singing on open vowels. Although we don't get a glut of the gloom and desire, it's far more than a glimpse. Be prepared to be swept up and away with efficiency rather than overkill. The digital booklet has a detailed plot synopsis, very personal comments from Miss Rice, color photos, and credits. (I'm told a physical CD release is being considered.)

The original music composed by Ian Ross is suitably stormy or simmering–with foreboding, rage and rue. Ash Hunter captures the darkness and heartache that are needed for the character of Heathcliff. The 12-person cast's most indelible solo impact comes via Lucy McCormick, who is alternatively fierce or reflective as Catherine, the woman he's obsessed with. (She's sometimes referred to as Cathy, which is also the name of her daughter, played by Witney White).

It's a team effort; in addition to other roles, all cast members except Hunter and McCormick participate in the frequent choral singing (and two also play instruments in the band!). An inspired creative stroke of extra theatricality is having the physical environment sing. The soggy setting of the tale, the Yorkshire Moors, is personified and the rest of the company works like a Greek Chorus that's in-your-face involved. Nandi Bhebhe is the powerful lead voice. In "Feral Joy" and "Are You Still Hungry?," respectively, they advise and warn ("Careful ... Can you hear me? No good can come of this ...") or offer lines with alliteration and a touch of sarcasm ("This is the harsh harvest of hatred. Well, what did you expect? Love?").

Giving credit where it's due, the source novel's author is co-billed for the lyrics with Miss Rice. All "All Hushed and Still" is indeed taken verbatim from Emily Brontë–not from Wuthering Heights, but from the first six lines of a 14-line poem. Three sections from a longer poem provide the full contents of "Bluebell." These provide pensive, quieter moments. However, I think it's safe to assume that the four-letter expletive exploding three times in "Cathy's Curse" is Rice paraphrasing rather than quoting Cathy via Brontë. But, in either angry or sensitive gear, Lucy McCormick brings on the feelings.

The five-piece band delivers the sound and fury with a welcome change from the usual instrumentation, as the words "piano," "keyboards" and "synthesizers" don't show up. The players are accordionist Craig Johnson, cellist TJ Holmes (these are the two who also play individual roles and become part of The Moor), bassist Renell Shaw, drummer Nadine Lee, and guitarist Sid Goldsmith. The last three named provided additional arrangements. (Composer Ross is the primary arranger).

This Wuthering Heights scales the heights of passion and descends to the depths of sorrow in an involving ride. However, Emma Rice is by no means the only one to adapt and add to the words of Emily Brontë's only novel. In fact, she's not even the only Rice. Tim Rice penned lyrics for a staged/recorded/filmed 1990s production called Heathcliff. Over the years, there have been numerous other musical theatre productions, including one reset in India, and operas, not to mention two versions known to have been written and abandoned. Another take on the story played Edinburgh's Fringe Festival and there's yet another in the works that previewed some of its songs in June. (Film and TV have revisited the story frequently, mostly in non-musical form; the murky Moors locale has been changed to Japan, Mexico, and, for MTV, a California high school.) Obviously, the 175-year-old tale has lasting appeal! And the high-voltage Rice/Ross flight is one worth taking, assuming you're prepared for turbulence and teardrops.

Dot Time Records
CD, Digital

With her eighth solo recording, Send for Me, singer Catherine Russell presents yet another strong set. Her strongest suit, as I hear things, has been the pursuit of sunshine in music, especially when she goes retro. Her old-school swing energizes. She radiates joy. Happily, there's lots of happy here! This lady doesn't need to rely on songs that, in their titles and lyrics, specifically proclaim personal happiness or preach positive thinking. It just seems to be her natural condition, which is proven to be very contagious, as if she were the president of the Delighted States of America. It's a nice place to visit. There's some doom and gloom, too, but let's wait a bit before sinking into that quicksand.

The high-spirited highlight is "At the Swing Cats Ball," written back in the 1930s by her father, Luis Russell, and William Campbell. It's frisky fun. A couplet in the lyric is cutely replaced to name-drop two of her musicians and their instruments: "Jon Kellso makes his trumpet moan/ John Alfred on that slide trombone." (The trumpeter is actually billed as Jon-Erik Kellso, but, hey, it's gotta scan.) Also from that decade is a charmer by Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson, from the movie Suzy, "Did I Remember," but Catherine Russell remembers it catching her ear via the contemporaneous Billie Holiday version that she heard played at a party. And she channels that jazz star's horn-like sound in an affectionately nostalgic way. A third souvenir of the 1930s is "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," which floats serenely as the singer snuggles up to the lyric about being a couple so content and intent on the plan to "build a dream house of love."

There's a sense of immense confidence (not to be confused with cockiness) that infuses her manner and phrasing. Strutting through "Sticks and Stones" she really does sound "satisfied" and impenetrable to name-calling–with a PS: "But don't call me early in the morning."

Catherine Russell's singing and songs here are not all parties and pep. She can seem to battle and/or be battered by the blues. Although "Blue and Sentimental" almost comes off as more sentimental than blue (despite the all-alone moan that "The skies and my eyes/ And my heart all cry"), other selections suggest more tears. When taking on the heartbreak of someone whose Mr. Right has taken flight ("In the Night," "You Can Fly High"), the loss is palpable. On a brighter note, the mix of idealized romance and lust make "Make It Last" the set's musical love potion. (The credited writers here are Bill Saxton and singer DIck Haymes, but most sources name the latter's half-brother, Bob Haymes.)

The instrumentation varies from track to track, and among the dozen top-drawer musicians are those she's worked with on prior recordings and live gigs. Moods are established economically, within the first few seconds of a track's kick-off, and the engaging playing when the vocalist takes a break is never anticlimactic or filler. Guitarist/banjo player Matt Munisteri is musical director; Mark Shane and Sean Mason alternate piano duties.

The booklet that comes with the CD has all the lyrics and liner notes that give some history on the songs, with Catherine Russell frequently quoted on how they came to her attention, with fond, fan-like nods to those who sang them back in the day. Those with some connections to the careers of her musician parents (to whom Send for Me is dedicated) are highlighted.

You can catch the terrific Miss Russell in person later in the month when she and John Pizzarelli team up to salute iconic singers in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York City–and she's set for a set with some of the musicians on Send for Me on September 29th at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Value Inside Productions
CD, Digital

I'd like to offer a few words of praise about singer Katherine Farnham and her Latin jazz release called Alquimia. With one exception, it's all original material, with most tracks not sung in English. It's off the beaten path of what we usually cover here, which is mostly focused on musical theatre material and the Great American Songbook repertoire and those performers with a current or past connection to these genres. This vocalist has previously recorded a few songs of such ilks, so I was curious about her new offering. And it's difficult to resist a strong, striking, resonant voice such as Katherine Farnham's! It has its own theatricality that throbs with emotion so that a language barrier is not a deal-breaker. Singing is in Spanish, Portuguese, and English–sometimes in combination. The first piece, simply titled "Tango," is an example of the latter. It is assertive in style, while most of the rest is more romantic and lush in tone.

She is her own writer, pianist, arranger, producer, background vocalist, and art director for the CD package. But there are others involved. Song-wise, there's one standard–well, not an American one, but so many singers have recorded it that it feels adopted: "Bésame Mucho," which arrived via Mexico decades ago. Others add to the musical sounds with guitars, bass, percussion, and vocal duets. There are nine tracks, which include two songs that each get two versions.

The atmospherics are variously sultry, tender, or yearning. In any mode or mood, Katharine Farnham has a powerful presence. Her liner notes end by asking us to "stay tuned" for "many more albums." I'm tuning in.