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Cry Me A Torch Song – the Video Version: November 2017

5 Nov

The November 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Janie Dee (Janie Dee at the BBC: “A set which keeps you guessing all the time”); Meredith Braun (When Love is Gone: “A narrative arc traced with an absorbing mixture of classic pop and theatre songs”); Sophia Marshall (Bye Bye: The influence of Americana is clear but Marshall is no pale imitator”), and Jude Adams (This Girl This Woman: “The life-affirming result of a pile-up of influences from a voice that commands attention”).

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Cry Me a Torch Song: the Video Version – April 2017

30 Apr

The April 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Betty Buckley (Story Songs: “Adventurous in her song choices and fearless in her commitment to them”), Sound of the Sirens (For All Our Sins: “A wonderfully cohesive, mature sound which will hold its own on the global stage”), Anna Coogan (The Lonely Cry of Space & Time: “Yma Sumac meets Americana… a sweeping, arresting exploration of the state of the world”), Patricia Kaas (Patricia Kaas: “Polished, expertly crafted chansons, full of complex, subtle emotions”), and catches up with Songs of Separation (“A celebration of the female voice, but also a resonant, bold statement for our times”).

Cry Me a Torch Song – the Video Version: December 2016

22 Dec

Welcome to the December 2017 issue of Cry Me A Torch Song – The Video Version. Piers Ford reviews albums from Katie Melua (In Winter: “Real moments of choral beauty”), Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater (Findings: “Exemplary musicianship”) and Joan Ellison (Symphonic Gershwin: “She doesn’t just blow off the dust – she gets inside the raw material and inhabits it”)

Album review – Betty Buckley: Ghostlight

20 Oct

There’s no Sondheim on Ghostlight but in the absence of more current video content, here’s a blast of “Children Will Listen”

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley's atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley’s atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

I wonder if I was the only one whose heart sunk just a little with the release of Barbra Streisand’s commercially fail-proof duets album. Not because there would be any doubt about the quality – which is as clinically polished and pitch-perfect as we’d expect – but because this great, great artist is treading such predictable water at a time when other mature singers are forging ahead into new territory.

Cue – and all hail – Ghostlight, the shimmering, moody new album from Texas’s finest, Betty Buckley, which sounds positively experimental in comparison.  There has always been a freedom in Buckley’s song choices that, while paying glancing obeisance to her status as a Broadway leading lady, suggests an independence and elegant wilfulness.

She has never been a conventional belter, and in this eclectic selection of standards, torchy ballads and soft rock and country songs, she takes some of the most familiar lyrics in the American songbook to darker, outlying terrain – exposing them to the ghostlight of the title and stripping them back to a kind of minimalist perfection. She is joined in her quest by producer T Bone Burnett, a life-long friend, who is responsible for the album’s stark, spacey beauty.

Looking back to a review I wrote of her 1993 record Children Will Listen for The Gramophone Good Musicals CD Guide, I note my remark that Buckley is “Refreshingly unafraid to try something different… [her] voice is unusual – husky and intense – often falling away almost to a murmur…” I would change little about those observations today, beyond adding that the years have simply brought greater depth and resonance to her interpretations.

She never forces the issue – as these beautiful versions of “Body and Soul”, Bewitched” and “This Nearly Was Mine” aver, pressing all the right emotional buttons without ever going over the top. Heartbreak is only a note away. “Lazy Afternoon” takes on an extraordinary air of mystery, hinting that anything could materialise out of the haze.

But the most interesting tracks fall in the album’s second half. There’s a sublime take on the Jefferson Airplane number “Comin’ Back to Me”, with its exquisite string arrangement, a poignant “Take it With Me When I Go”, and an honest, lyrical reading of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Time Stands Still”. Effortlessly majestic.

Album review – Mary Carrick: Let’s Fly

3 Jul


Dance me to the End of Love: just one of Carrick’s clever song choices

Let's Fly: Mary Carrick's voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

Let’s Fly: Mary Carrick’s voice is reminiscent of great torch singers from the past

You don’t hear too many voices like Mary Carrick’s in popular music these days, beyond the boundaries of operetta or traditional musical theatre. Her clear, mellifluous soprano might not quite have the resonance of, say, Audra McDonald’s, but it is pleasingly elegant and molten – and all the more refreshing for its lyrical clarity in an age when diction in singing doesn’t always seem to be a priority.

In her technique, Carrick harks back to the intimate, low-key drama of the great Helen Morgan and her sister torch singers of the 1920s and 1930s.

At first glance, Let’s Fly looks like another album of standards. And in a crowded market, your instinctive response is to ask, what’s different about this one? The answer lies in Carrick’s clever song choices.

The old-school standards – “Come Rain or Come Shine”, a mash-up of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, and Cole Porter’s “So in Love” are deftly handled to be sure, but they are mainly the cornerstones of a record which celebrates more contemporary song-writing talents. And the contrast is fascinating.

The album opens with the delicious fatalism of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Time”, and takes in Jason Robert Brown (“Stars and the Moon”) and Stephen Schwartz (the sublime “Meadowlark”) – all holding their own alongside the masters of the American songbook.

Carrick really nails her singing colours to the mast at the heart of the set with two numbers. The first, an impassioned take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” confirms that wistful ballad as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. The second, a sizzling interpretation of Barry Manilow’s “Man Wanted”, is a reminder that he, too, is one of the finest songwriters of our time.

The final number, an echoing, sweeping version of Craig Carnelia’s “Flight” is a moving and inspirational note on which to end.

It takes a singer with Carrick’s vision and a passion for story-telling to weave songs like this into compelling and unexpected combinations. And she succeeds with the help of a fine band – three of whom, pianists J.Gawf, Todd Brooks and Eric Andries, also take credit for the pristine arrangements.

Album review – Deborah Shulman and Larry Zalkind: Lost in the Stars, The Music of Bernstein, Weill & Sondheim

23 Dec

Mack the Knife: Shulman and Zalkind whip up a little vortex of menace

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars is a classy little jewel of an album. It takes a couple of listens for the sheer quality and uncluttered lustre of Deborah Shulman’s vocals to take hold, so understated and subtle are they. But once they have you in their thrall, they yield refined treasure.

The album is based on songs from a trinity of musical theatre composers – Weill, Bernstein and Sondheim – who need no further introduction. The delight is in the ease with which Shulman teases out nuances and revelations from numbers that you might think you know inside out.

There’s an eerie, unsettling version of “Mack the Knife”, for example, which sweeps you up into a little vortex of menace, light years from the bravado that most singers ladle on. And if “The Ladies Who Lunch” replaces the traditional self-scorning attack with a more observational, modulated treatment, it’s certainly a fresh approach to some of Sondheim’s most visceral lyrics. That clarity extends to “Children will Listen”, a lilting “I Feel Pretty” and an assured, stark and mournful “Losing My Mind”.

Shulman’s restraint pays such dividends that it almost seems a shame not to hear how she might handle “My Ship”, here an elegant instrumental solo for her brother-in-law, the trombonist Larry Zalkind, whose contribution to the album is equally fascinating. He leads an accomplished band of accompanists who provide Shulman with some intriguing counter harmonies to work against. The texture they bring to the gently swinging “September Song” and the washed-up, after-hours blues of “Ain’t got no Tears Left” is sublime. Serious without once sounding earnest or worthy, this is an album of standards for grownups.

CD Review – Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs from End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics

20 Jun

After a short interview, Tracie Bennett sings “Just in Time” on the Paul O’Grady Show

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: never a mere impersonation

She might have missed out on an Olivier Award – and surely it was by the narrowest of margins – for her performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, but Tracie Bennett’s insightful and committed interpretation of the role will be her calling card for years to come.

Her six-month sell-out season at the Whitehall Studios will soon be followed by a UK tour and then, early in 2012, a US run in Minneapolis – on the doorstep of Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids – with Broadway the ultimate goal.

In truth, it’s Bennett’s Garland, rather than the play itself, which has generated this momentum. Her Judy, plummeting headlong into an emotional vortex, repels and compels in equal measure, a fascinating study of a legend in rapid decline. And then there are the songs, each embodying in some way the unique spell that Garland held over her audience, even when it was tainted by the lurid voyeurism that too often featured in her late performances.

In the role, Bennett’s portrayal of the Garland concert persona – the twitches, the hair tugging, the restless strutting, that flicking of the microphone lead – is an extraordinary dramatic feat. And her vocal performance, an uncannily accurate blend of Garland’s trademark tics, the on-the-edge tremolo and smudged consonants, goes way beyond mere impersonation.

All of which makes the cast album – for that’s what Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics essentially is – an interesting prospect: are we listening to Tracie or Judy?

Bennett obviously has serious vocal gifts of her own, but they are necessarily subjugated to the role in a way that doesn’t usually impact so specifically on a leading lady’s singing performance. Without its dramatic context, it would have been all too easy for the album to dwindle into mimicry, serving neither the artist nor her subject.

Happily, this is never the case. Co-producers Chris Egan and Gareth Valentine have lovingly created an authentic, contemporary, brassy sound that supports Bennett’s throaty timbre – the key to her approximation of the Garland voice – and allows her to showcase the essential emotional highpoints of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” without ever tipping into parody or sound-alike karaoke.

The handful of songs from the show are joined by a selection from the legendary Carnegie Hall concert – the reference for many of Egan’s arrangements – and the title song from Garland’s last film, I Could Go On Singing. There are also cracking versions of “When the Sun Comes Out”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Chaplin’s evergreen, “Smile”.

At times, the similarity with the real thing is breath taking. Bennett is ever respectful of the legend. But there are also occasional moments when she takes off on a little riff – or in “The Trolley Song”, a chuckle – that reminds you this is a dramatic interpretation rather than an imitation.