This week we are taking a look at two thrifty releases that come from very different places, from two very different performers with wildly divergent intended goals for their work. A definite case of a hit and a miss, if there ever were any. Up first is the strong debut from the first-ever female Pirelli in SWEENEY TODD...
Smiling, Though Her Heart Is Breaking
Donna Lynne Champlin - OLD FRIENDS
A stunning, idiosyncratic and curiosity-provoking entry, Donna Lynne Champlin's OLD FRIENDS feels much like the title proposes, except these old friends have lots of new stories to tell you, and songs to sing you, in addition to the well-worn tears and tickles provided by warm memories - and some bitter and cold - of yore. Where other performers could have concocted a meal of maudlin mush, Champlin cooks up a delectable ragout of wit, warmth and a generous sprinkling of sincere sentiment. There may be a small side serving of sarcasm, but that acts as a mostly welcome sorbet in between the fifteen course feast served with discernible drive and tangible delight by the affable host to us, the old friends, whom she regales with performances filled with endless ingenuity and careful precision, nailing nearly every nuance with nary a misstep. OLD FRIENDS makes us feel satisfied and fulfilled, much like a good meal or time spent with an old friend can warm the heart, spirit and present new perspectives with which to look at life in a new light. Yet, this is a feast that may be too rich for some and a few bites at a time may be the best way to ease your way into this effortlessly enjoyable and immensely interesting feast served up for us by Miss Champlin. Be forewarned, there is much more dark meat being served up here than light, and the mood is unrelentingly contemplative. The elegant and evocative artwork and design provided by the always excellent Robbie Rozelle, along with the kindhearted and kooky liner notes provided by Carol Burnett (Champlin's co-star in HOLLYWOOD ARMS) and Miss Champlin herself, act both as a palette-whetting appetizer for the riches to come and a warming aperitif after we have had our fill and wish to learn more about these songs and the master chef at the helm. It would be hard for me to have too much of this delicious treat, though, as I have pointed it out, it may take a listen or two to fall under the spell of this skilled storyteller as she weaves her magic spell over the course of the always-arresting album. I apologize in advance for this gluttonous glut of words, and shall eschew the epicureans' hyperbole henceforth, though I must reiterate that that is the best way to describe the delicate layers and subdued subtlety injected into nearly every element of this album's presentation and the preciseness of the pleasantries as they strike the palette. So, let's just dig right in.
Evoking Emmylou Harris, the emotional and eerie "Hard Times Come Again No More" is a exemplary opener to the album. The quartet of voices, all Champlin, sound much like apparitions appearing to raise the curtain to reveal a country cabin and we can feel the sentimental snowflakes fall like long-forgotten memories on the floor of the sonic stage picture she creates as she sets the scene for what is to come as the ghostly memory play progresses. "Eiffel Tower" is actually abetted by the fact that this song, as well as the majority of the album, was recorded in a less-than-steller environment (read: her bathroom/recording booth). The Charlie Chaplin standard "Smile" is given both a country twang and an operatic overtone with winning results, no small order in explanation or enacting. The spirits slink into an even more rueful, ruminative life hereafter with "Only Hope", which continues the somber tone of the early tracks, but remains compelling and alluring both because of the elegiac orchestration and emotive delivery of the material. Patsy Cline herself would find much to like in both "Smile" and "Only Hope", and so do I. "County Fair" displays Champlin at her storytelling best and the subtle sound effects are enchanting and instrumental in continuing to carry the mood of the album, both here and on the other tracks. With "Cry" the enterprise achieves its emotional apotheosis, but the tracks leading up to it sabotage its intended impact somewhat largely because what has come before is similarly sad and sentimental, though her cries of pain are searing and scorching as the song builds to its caterwauling climax and by the end it has clearly established itself as a standout in a string of standouts. Few could make this song as much of a winner as Champlin has here and she is due much praise for that feat alone. "Once Upon A December", from the film of ANASTASIA by Ahrens & Flaherty, one of the most ghostly and gilt-encrusted silvery songs ever written, signals the sentimental, sad snowfall started at the beginning of the album turning into a full-on blustery blizzard of memories recreated for our entertainment of introverted inspection. "Where've You Been" again displays Champlin's ingratiating and graceful way with words and her palpable precision in telling a tale - whether tall or short, sad or sentimental, light or dark.
Indeed, the bright white, ephemeral snowflakes of sweet sentimentality that swirl around us as the tracks progress act as the singular respite from the encroaching darkness that envelops the majority of the album. The audible quiver in Champlin's voice at the end of "Where've You Been" could elicit an ice-cold teardrop from the chilliest and most cold-hearted among us. Speaking of tears, both fresh, warm and wet as well as distant, cool, dry and nearly forgotten, "I Cried For Us" is more of the same sad introspection, but lacking the variety of the similarly-themed tracks leading up to it. It is at this point that the album becomes almost too depressing to endure, but the uplifting trio of voices (all Champlin) again prove that Champlain can make much more out of the material than it may deserve and her personality alone makes this emotionally treacherous terrain affable and affecting. She consistently changes up the intention and intensity, and where most others would devolve into some sameness she shines ever brighter and more blazing. Jason Robert Brown‘s "Still Hurting", undoubtedly one of the most scathing and depressing songs written in the last twenty years, is performed with utmost dedication and the delivery rivals even that of Lauren Kennedy and Sherie Rene Scott, two leading ladies who could have rightfully claimed they owned this song. Until now. "When She Loved Me" by Randy Newman simply must be heard, as Champlin acquits herself remarkably well with it, besting Sarah McLachlan and Kerry Butler‘s quite good versions. "From God's Arms To My Arms To Yours" is heart-breaking and heartfelt, with excellent music and lyrics by Michael McLean that, combined with Champlin‘s considerate delivery, is equally a political message and a masterpiece of maternal emotion. "When Eleanor Smiles", the best song from the unusual and unique FIRST LADY SUITE by Michael John LaChiusa, is the song I was most looking forward to hearing when the track-list for the album was revealed and it is now my favorite recording of the song. While in the show the song is performed quite differently, Champlin's sensitive rendering of the material fits in well with the rest of the album, and the sprightly and showy build-up near the end of the song is the only bone thrown to the those looking for a showstopper here. This album is all about mood, style and substance, and never is that made more clear than in this track which is quite different from the way it is performed in the show. "When The End Comes" suffers the most from the cheaply done recording technique (no fault of Champlin's) and acts as the only track on the album that is below the level of the rest of the affair, and it is almost too audibly distorted to have been included as far as I'm concerned. The last track, "Parting Glass", ends the album on a perfect note and brings the snowflake-laden, sentimental storytelling full-circle. This album is a journey down dark, even black, paths, but we walk away feeling as if we have gained so much, not the least of which is a piece of Champlin's very heart and soul, and even a quick last-minute jaunt to Ireland as in the last track. Though the curtain has fallen, as has the snow, we are left with much to ponder as we wander off on our way at the album's conclusion. Yet, the ghosts of memories, our own and Champlin's, still linger with us longer after it is over.
This album is an Irish ghost story, a memory play on record, and the spirits shall haunt you many, many nights after you have succumbed to their somnolent songs of love, loss and perseverence. While the somber, plaintive nature of the song selection may initially dissuade some from partaking in this rueful ragout, the ultimate emotional satisfaction we feel after having gone on this exquisite journey and having experienced the many tastes of these tears and gnawed upon the gristle as well as the magnificent meat at the heart of it, we ultimately come away anything but hungry. Well, perhaps hungry for another meal shared with the master chef and storyteller who makes us feel like her closest friends over the course of the rich, rewarding and truly delicious meal she has served us. Some heartache is to be hard here, for sure, but certainly no heartburn. Bon a petit!
John Lloyd Young - "Love Believes"
Sounding like the bastard stepchild of Jim Steinman, Freddie Mercury and Stephen Sondheim is John Lloyd Young's new single, the bizarre, cliché and generally abhorrent "Love Believes" featuring the atrocious Holly Miller. I thought Young was exemplary in JERSEY BOYS and has turned in excellent performances at many benefits since his tenure in that show, even finding much to praise in his recent stint on GLEE, but there is little to like in this single, in which Young sounds like a distant, almost talent-less cousin to Frankie Valli. It would be nearly impossible to list everything wrong with this song, from the painful, recurrent reprise of "Turn around" (cribbed from Steinman's legendary "Total Eclipse of the Heart", a song once described by Leonard Bernstein as "the perfect pop song") by Miller, to the Franken-song writing, to the almost offensively hackneyed story the song purports to tell.
The production of the track reveals the seemingly bargain-basement level low-budget trappings of the track and even the Tony-winning star comes off sounding under-rehearsed and painfully miscast in this, supposedly his entrée into the realm of the rock/pop recording industry. Considering the song was supposedly written to showcase his strengths reveals how off-the-mark the end result is. This man is a major talent and rightfully deserves so much better. Given the brouhaha surrounding the album artwork many were set to hate it before they ever heard it, but the results are far worse than even the most vehement naysayers could have possibly imagined. I, myself, cannot imagine any fans of his theatre work finding anything to like here, and the pop audience he is seeking will unquestionably fail to latch on to this Adam Lambert-esque abomination, as well. What was the thought-process, or lack thereof, that wrought this wreckage upon us? Whatever it was, it does not work. At all.