24 CDs Reviewed
© by John Arkelian
Allie Hughes: Waiting for the Prize (B+/A-): Remarkable first album from a Canadian singer/songwriter who’s clearly destined for big things. Hughes performed at a fundraiser for the Oshawa Little Theater last fall, with her fellow “Maria” competition contestant Donna Lajeunesse. She shows serious singing chops and musical versatility here. These ten tracks are full of fast, catchy rhythms, and fancy vocal footwork, and “Fall” appealingly exemplifies both. Hughes has a seductive voice, smart lyrics, moments of irreverent humor, and melodies that go in unexpected directions. The result is a bit sexy, a bit witty, and altogther engaging. “Bad Luck” is a jazzy, bluesy song that sounds like a show tune from the musical stage. It’s a first-rate song, powerfully delivered. “That’s Just Me” is an ironic juxtaposition of down-to-earth lyrics and an operatic lament. Meanwhile, “What Have I Done?” is a serious reverie on life’s choices; with a hint of the bittersweet, it’s quite affecting. All we can say is, Wow! Run out and get this album! www.myspace.com/alliehughes
5 Stars: Favorites from the 5 Browns (RCA Red Seal) (B+): Five siblings (three sisters and two brothers), talented pianists all, present a selection of solos, duets, trios, and quintets. Their “Scenes from West Side Story” is full of colors and emotion; “Flight of the Bumble Bee” is devoted to dazzling speed; while Copland/Dvorak’s “Simple Gifts/Going Home” is an emotional roller-coaster, full of joy, nostalgia, and home-sickness. Elsewhere, there’s delicacy and precision (in Ignaz Friedman’s “Tobatiene a musique, Op. 33, No. 3”); romanticism (in Grieg’s “Ich liebe dich, Op. 41, No. 3); and lyricism (in Debussy’s “Clair du Lune”). And to top things off memorably, there’s “Home Blues” from Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” with guest Chris Botti on trumpet; and two paragons of passion: Rachmaninoff’s “18th Variation” from “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Lecuona’s “Malaguena” from “Andalucia Suite.”
Burt Bacharach Live at the Sydney Opera House (Verve Music) (A-): Medleys and some entire songs in a recorded concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and vocalists (Josie James, John Pagano, and Donna Taylor are very good), with composer Burt Bacharach at the piano. Many of these songs are classics of pop music. (Hal Davis wrote the lyrics to a lot of them.) If you don’t know them by name, you’re certain to recognize the melodies when you hear them. Standouts include: the bittersweet “Close to You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “What’s New, Pussycat,” “Walk On By,” “This Guy’s in Love with You,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” One song, “Always Something There to Remind Me,” must be arranged differently here; this version sounds different from the one we remember. The characteristic sound of these songs is ‘perky,’ for want of a better word; most of them are romantic and a little bit jazzy. There’s just one regret: The hit songs in the medleys deserved full-length renditions, rather than the mere samples we get here.
Sean Kelly: Christmas Guitar (Opening Day) (B+): 15 tracks, all of them Christmas favorites, played on acoustic guitar, supplemented here and there by electric guitar. These peaceful and gentle renditions were arranged by Sean Kelly and James Robertson. Most hue pretty closely to the traditional versions, and that’s all for the good when it comes to such beloved classics. There’s the occasional segue (as in “The Angel Gabriel”) to an electric guitar riff, but such musical detours never seem necessary, save, perhaps, for the outright substitution of electrics for acoustical guitars in “Carol of the Bells,” which does, we must admit, work very well.
Yo Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace (Sony Classical) (B/B+): An eclectic mix of musical genres and performers that assembles piano, sax, guitars, fiddle, bagpipes, clarinet, harp, ukulele, and mandolin, and vocalists as diverse as Diana Krall, James Taylor, Renee Fleming, and Alison Kraus. Yo Yo Ma’s cello is heard on nearly every track; while Natalie McMaster (on fiddle), Paquito D’Rivera (on clarinet), Chris Botti (on trumpet), and the Silk Road Ensemble are just a few of the many performers with whom he is paired in this celebratory ode to the season. Their repertoire ranges from beloved Christmas classics like “Joy to the World” to unexpected fare like “Here Comes the Sun.” As the lead artist says, “There are as many ways to achieve peace as there are to express joy.” Highlights include: “The Wassail Song/All Through the Night,” the haunting “Wexford Carol,” a clarnet and piano improvisation on “Dona Noblis Pacem,” “My One and Only Love” (with tenor saxophone), and “Happy Christmas (War is Over).”
The Salvation Army: Together (VCJ Music) (B+/A-): Music to inspire! 14 tracks, every one of them memorable, from the Salvation Army’s world-class International Staff Band. Stand-outs include the powerful and moving “Nimrod” by Elgar, “You Raise Me Up,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The band is joined by vocalist Aled James for one track and by Leslie Garrett for a stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and, the Fron Male Voice Choir joins the band for “Going Home.” Together, these songs are guaranteed to give you a glimpse of the golden dawn that awaits after life’s storms.
Joshua Bell – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Sony Classical) (A-): This is violinist Joshua Bell’s first recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s classic concertos. He’s joined by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and by harpsichordist John Constable. The album also contains Giuseppe Tartini’s “Sonata in G Minor” (the “Devil’s Trill Sonata”). Bell notes the inventiveness and scope for individuality offered by these great works of Baroque music. They’re rousingly dramatic, too, as in the “Allegro non molto” section of “Winter.”
The Canadian Tenors (Universal) (A-): This blend of operatic and pop sounds, with an occasional hint of “new age,” follows in the footsteps of the kind of repertoire favored by Sarah Brightman, RyanDan, Il Divo, Andrea Bocelli, et al. There’s even an ode to the glories of Cape Breton Island written by Rita MacNeil. (When the lyrics to that song say, “There are places that will bring you to your knees,” you can believe it!) The repertoire is not precisely classical, but it is informed by a classical sensibility. Each of the quartet has a strong voice and ample individuality. (We get only their first names – Victor, Remiglio, Fraser, and Jamie – for some reason.) And there’s a very nice choice of material: It’s robust, emotional, and instantly involving, and it shows off the foursome’s vocal power and range to good effect. The songs are in English, Italian, and French – and, in one case, Gaelic. Standouts include “Because We Believe” and “Remember Me.” Upbeat and inspirational, it’s a keeper.
RocknRolla (Hip-O Records/Universal) (B+/A-): Award-caliber, rockin’ score to one of the best films of 2008 – Guy Ritchie’s darkly funny, deftly idiosyncratic look at London’s subculture of guns, drugs, and rock and roll – with its playful take on sex, danger, ill-gotten gain, and being cool. Played over the opening credits, Black Strobe’s “I’m a Man” sets the tone from the get-go with driving blues rhythms. Then there’s The Sonics 1965 song, “Have Love, Will Travel;” and The Clash’s 1980 song “Bank Robber,” which is a childhood favorite of the film’s sardonic, drugged-out, but remarkably perceptive rock star cum poseur ‘Johnny Quid.’ Elsewhere, Kim Fowley’s 1966 song “The Trip” lives up to its name with its trippy, ever-building tempo; while Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” (1960) will instantly transport you back in time. But, The Subways’ 2005 song “Roll & Roll Queen” takes the place of honor here; it could be the anthem for the entire film, combining a sense of recklessness, irreverence, and sheer gusto in one great beat!
Molly Johnson: Lucky (Universal) (B+): 14 tracks from the Canadian jazz singer from jazz and pop repertoire. Johnson has an appealing voice, and she presents confident renditions of memorable songs from strong arrangements. She co-wrote one of these songs; Duke Ellington and George Gershwin contributed others. They range from playful (“Whatever Lola Wants”) to mellow (“I Got it Bad”) to huskily seductive “Lush Life”). Stand-outs include “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I’ll Never Smile Again.”
Duane Andrews: Raindrops (B+/A-): 5 of these 11 tracks were composed by the Canadian guitarist and composer based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His guitar is joined by trumpet, vibraphone, rhythm guitar, and bass (as well as by the Atlantic String Quartet for some tracks) for a jazzy, honkytonk sound. Technically ambitious and aesthetically impressive, these tracks combine complex rhythms and distinctive sounds. The result is very pleasing to the ear indeed. Some of the songs find their inspiration in traditional Newfoundland music. That comes through to pleasing effect in “Bees and Flowers/Joe Smallwood’s,” an irresistible medley of two reels. This may be the best jazz album of the year! www.duaneandrews.ca
Defiance (Sony Classical) (B+): Film-score by James Newton Howard using a full symphony orchestra, with violin solos by Joshua Bell. The film was about Polish brothers who took a large assembly of Jews under their wing as they wage a guerilla war against the Nazis from their shelter in the forest. Richly emotional, the music is delicate and haunting, with moments of suspense, sadness, resolve, and martial conflict. And there are some nice ethnic music motifs.
Four Christmases (Decca) (B over-all; selected tracks A): Fortunately, this is one film score that requires no familiarity at all with the film. It exists to complement a very silly looking comedy film; but, it’s really a compilation disc of well-known seasonal fare. Offering traditional arrangements of songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Dean Martin), and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it would make a nice addition to a collection of Christmas music. Best of all, it avoids fiddling with these well-loved songs; consistent with this reviewer’s view that, when it comes to the songs of Christmas, if they’re not broken, don’t fix them. A standout here is Gavin DeGraw’s rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Perry Como and Louis Armstrong are also on board. As for misfires, the collection didn’t need Tom Petty’s rock-carol “Christmas All Over Again” or the song “Seasons Greetings,” neither of which is in the same league as the more familiar fare. But the album’s main failing is its rather brief (at about 33 minutes) running time.
Sarah Brightman: A Winter Symphony (EMI) (A-): 15-track CD, with DVD and documentary. It’s eclectic material, all sung with orchestral backing: a song by the male half of ABBA, sacred music (two versions of “Ave Maria” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), a Christmas hymn (“Silent Night”), devotional music (“Amazing Grace”), traditional folk music (“In the Bleak Midwinter”), and a song about lost love (“Colder than Winter”), all featuring the signature soprano voice, emotionalism, and lush romanticism of a performer who is also a vision of beauty. Other highlights include: “Child in a Manger,” Bach’s “Ave Maria,” John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over),” and the simply electrifying “When a Child is Born.”
Serena Ryder: Is It O.K. (EMI) (A-): 13 tracks by the talented Canadian singer/songwriter with a distinctively strong and husky voice, all of them written (or co-written) by her. Ryder is a real talent to behold. She won a Juno Award in 2008 as ‘Best New Artist’ for her previous album “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” her memorable renditions of standards from the past. In March 2009, this new album won a Juno as ‘Best Adult Alternative Album.’ Pop meets storytelling ballad here, with some rock licks and a voice that would equally suit folk music. With its very catchy melody, rhythms, and lyrics, “Little Bit of Red” is the piece de resistance on this album: “Oh baby blue, oh baby blue, c’mon here, I’m gonna smear another color over you.” There’s heartache, strength, and wisdom in these songs. “Brand New Love” has a nice quiver to the vocals, and there’s still more of that irresistible emotional quaver (one that raises goosebumps of empathy) in “Stumblin’ Over You.” For its part, “Weak in the Knees” is a strong entry on the country music side of the aisle; while the folksy “Dark as the Black” has Ryder using only her acoustic guitar for most of the song: “One world, one love, means northing if you’re just pretending… To do your part, there’s nothing to good intentions.” Ryder is a very talented composer and lyricist; and these are remarkably well-written songs. www.serenaryder.com
Jill Barber: For All Time (Baudelaire/Dependant Music) (B+): 11 tracks written by a talented Canadian singer/songwriter, with a nice diversity of musical styles and an impressive vocal range that combines with unmistakeable self-confidence for a highly appealing result. “When I’m Making Love to You” is playful, a bit jazzy, and a bit like a snappy Mary Hopkin ballad, with just a hint of an arch vaudevillian humor. “Just for Now” is languid and a bit sultry, in a wholesome way; “Ashes to Ashes” is a clear-eyed reflection on mortality; “Hard Line” offers a captivating rhythm; “Legacy” is a pensive ode; “Goodnight Sweetheart” has sad resignation over lost love in the style of new country; and “Starting to Show” has appealingly catchy lyrics: “Oh I am in love and it’s starting to show / From the tip of my cap to the bottom of my soul / So talk me sweet and dance me slow.” What’s really starting to show is that Barber has talent to spare. www.jillbarber.com
Kristin Sweetland: Own Sweet Time (Arbora Vita Music) (B+): A new album by another talented Canadian singer/songwriter, complete with poetic lyrics (“Over ships of folded paper / Does the blackened raven fly”). There’s “Gone Gone Gone,” a ballad about the trials and tribulations of a solo journey by car across the endless miles of the Trans-Canada Highway; a meditation on good and evil prompted by late-night conspiracy talk radio; half-serious musings (complete with an allusion to ‘Mulder & Scully,’ the hapless investigators of all things paranormal on television’s “The X-Files”) about the apocalyptic possibilities posed by the ‘red rain’ that fell in southern India in 2001; an instrumental acoustic guitar solo tribute to Emily Carr’s painting “Vanquished” (a highlight of the album) and nature’s power to outlast civilizations; “The Fox Fires,” about two friends biding a final adieu to a beloved cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains (a fiddle and banjo add a twang that suitys the setting); and a song set set at a small Arizona motel that has flamenco guitar licks. And the lyrics in “Xanadu” made an impression on this writer: “Blessed is the pen in the night / Cursed are the words when you can’t get it right / I would give anything not to give in / To the darkness within.” www.kristinsweetland.com
Sarah Brightman: Symphony (EMI) (B+/A-): The CD cover (and booklet art) is all flowing gowns, dramatic gestures, cathedral-like ruins, ominous woods, stone gargoyles, and fantastical amalgams of towers and trees that look like something out of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The over-all visual effect is Gothic meets fantasy, reminiscent of the Ridley Scott film “Legend.” But, musically, it’s really the stuff of High Romance. The songs seem to have been custom-made as a showcase for Brightman’s clear soprano voice. It’s a shame the lyrics aren’t printed in the booklet. At times, the music (like the CD packaging) is glossy, the stuff of artifice, over-production, and the self-conscious striking of a pose – perhaps to the detriment of simplicity and sincerity. To a degree, it leaves one feeling manipulated; but, even so, there’s no denying that it achieves its goals – conjuring romanticism, beauty, and moments of emotion. It all begins with “Gothica,” which opens with peals of thunder, followed by a driving rhythmic beat and a ‘cri de coeur’ as it segues into the second track, “Fleurs du mal,” with a chorus worthy of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” “Canto della terra” has some genuinely stirring moments, most of them courtesy of guest Andrea Bocelli; “Sanvean” conveys vulnerability and yearning very nicely; “Running” starts with instantly familiar music of a patriotic bent (a la ‘Pomp and Circumstance’), takes a detour into pop territory akin to John Lennon’s “War is Over,” and then returns whence it began; while “Sarai Qui,” with guest Alessandro Safina has especially strong vocals from both members of the duo.
Lenka (Epic Records/Sony BMG) (B+/A- over-all; one track A+): One song, “The Show,” is worth the price of admission all by itself. A playful, slightly arch reflection on the stage-play we call life, it’s as catchy as can be, and utterly, enchantingly irresistible, just like its Australian singer/songwriter. Perfectly reflecting its performer’s combination of arched brow and sweetly feminine voice, it is uniquely ‘innocent’ and ‘knowing’ all at once. It’s easily the best song of the year – and it’s a keeper! The closest comparison to Lenka’s quirky, vaguely exotic sound in this perky song is the Israeli singer Yael Naem’s song “New Soul.” Elsewhere, there’s “Like a Song,” a sweet, lovely ballad reminiscent of Mary Hopkin; the very catchy beat of “Trouble is a Friend;” and “Skipalong,” which is of a piece with “The Show” in subject (living life) and sound. Another standout, “Anything I’m Not,” is full of innocence and yearning tinged by wistfulness: “I am so tired of being me / I wanna be free / I wanna be new and different / Anything I’m not.” lenkamusic.com
Diana Panton: If the Moon Turns Green (A-): The talented Canadian jazz singer is joined by Reg Schwager (guitar) and Don Thompson (bass & piano) for 16 songs on a celestial theme, songs that concern themselves with the moon and stars above. And, if there was ever music to be enjoyed by moonlight, this is it. By turns playful, sparkling, and enticing, these dreamy songs are the stuff that quiet reveries and other dreams are made of. There’s a lovely femininity and intimacy to Panton’s voice, with hints of wistful yearning. The songs range from the instantly familiar to the relatively obscure. Together, they are a delight to the senses. Highlights include the irresistibly romantic “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (in French and English), Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “A Handful of Stars,” and the great “Moon River.” (All that’s missing is the wonderful song “Stardust.”) The result is an intoxicating enchantment that belongs in every music lover’s collection. www.dianapanton.com Note: Panton appears at the Glenn Gould Studio on May 1, 2010.
Eimear Quinn: O Holy Night (A-): Most of this lovely selection of Christmas songs are traditional favorites; three were written by the Irish singer/songwriter Eimear Quinn herself. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is aptly described as a “jubilant anthem,” and it truly stirs the emotions. “Codail a Linbh,” an Irish lullaby for the baby Jesus, is gentleness given voice; while “In Paradisum,” one of Eimear’s own compositions, is haunting and reverent at the same time. “O Holy Night” is an instant standout; but a non-traditional arrangement is employed for “Silent Night,” when tradition would serve the hymn better. Conversely, the deviation from the standard arrangement accorded the poignant 15th century carol “Coventry Carol” is all to the good, giving the words a more solemn context than that afforded by the standard medieval dance rhythm.
Eimear Quinn: Gatherings (B+/A-): 11 songs, about half of them co-written by the performer, who won the Eurovision song contest in 1995 with “The Voice.” The CD opens with a siren’s song (“I hear your voice on the wind / And I hear you call out my name”) and draws the listener in with ethereal beauty. The songs combine characteristics of Celtic, pop, folk, and new age music. Some, like “White Sail,” are from a song cycle based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult. Quinn would be a fine choice for a soundtrack vocalist when it comes time to score the film version (now in pre-production) of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” or, better yet, his High Fantasy, “The Silmarillion,” should it ever make it to the big screen. There’s gentleness and fragility here, a sense of innocence and of the poetic. All of those traits are on hand in “Voice of an Angel.” For their parts, “Angel Dream” is poetic and softly reflective, with a refrain that’s appealingly catchy, in an understated way; “Yann Derrien” is part ballad, part lullaby; and a lullaby-like sensibility pervades “Winter, Fire, and Snow,” one of the album’s loveliest songs. Quinn is distant musical kin to Enya, but she’s also a distinctive voice in her own right. www.eimearquinn.com
Closer: The Best of Sarah McLachlan (Nettwerk) (B+): With 16 songs written (or co-written) by the popular Canadian singer/songwriter, this album should appeal to newcomers and fans alike. There’s a dreaminess to McLachlan’s voice, and the lyrics are worth listening to: “The night is my companion, and solitude my guide,” and “Through this world I stumble, so many times betrayed” (both from “Possession”). And, there’s a variety of sounds, with, for instance “Into the Fire’s” electric guitar chords venturing into rock music mode. For its part, “Hold On” has hints of a country music sound. Standouts include the instantly familiar “Building a Mystery” (“Come out at night, that’s when… the vampires roam”); “Angel” (“In the arms of an angel, fly away from here…”); and a concert recording of “I Will Remember You.” Other notables include “Fallen,” “Adia,” and “U want me 2.” All that’s missing is “Full of Grace.” As folk-informed pop music, it’s introspective, wistful, and dreamy.
Emilie-Claire Barlow: Haven’t We Met? (Empress Music) (A): 13 tracks from the wonderfully talented Canadian jazz singer. Things get off on a fun note with “All I Do is Dream of You” There’s a highly appealing ‘girl next door’ quality to Barlow’s singing: It’s wholesome, but never dull. On the contrary, there’s personality to spare here — playful, confident, a little sexy, and somehow ‘comfortable.’ In short, she’s irresistible! The pace runs the gamut from the near patter of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” to sultriness that’s in no hurry at all (“Comin’ Home Baby”). Other highlights include: “Haven’t We Met?”; the classy, dreamily romantic “I’m Glad There is You,” which is the stuff of happy reveries; the exuberant “Chez Moi;” “Jardin d’Hiver,” which conjures palpable images of an Audrey Hepburn movie, for some elusive reason; and the fast-paced “La Vem A Baiana.” Meanwhile, “You Make Me Feel So Young” is guaranteed to make you smile. The entire selection is a perfect match of performer and material. It’s a sheer, uplifting delight, and you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to come back for more. Highly recommended! www.emilieclairebarlow.com
Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.