Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Covering the rainbow


Many years ago, songs from stage and screen musicals were eagerly devoured by recording artists looking for quality material, were heard on the airwaves all day long and were whistled by people in the street.  These days, this isn’t as true as it once was, though showtunes pop up in all sorts of unlikely places, perhaps most frequently as the background music for television adverts.  Cover versions of these songs tend to be restricted to ‘theatre people’ on theatre or cabaret albums, or to folk like Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé, since a lot of the jazz, swing and easy listening standard repertoire has its origins on the musical stage.

Over the Rainbow CDLast year, an unusual album of showtune covers was released, in order to raise money for children’s hospices in the UK.  This was organised by Anneka Rice, as part of a special edition of Challenge Anneka, a name which will only mean anything to Brits of around my age or older.  In the space of a few days, Anneka badgered, hectored and emotionally blackmailed (probably – I didn’t see the special, so this is pure speculation) a diverse bunch of producers, artists and so on into recording this album, which went on general sale with £2 from every purchase going to the worthy cause of the Association of Children’s Hospices (though why only £2?).  The album is called ‘Over the Rainbow’, subtitled ‘Showtunes in aid of the Association of Children’s Hospices’.  It’s a most intriguing thing.

The album opens with the title number, one which everyone (surely?) knows, as interpreted by Duncan James on vocals, Myleene Klass on piano and, to add that special something, a children’s choir.  I am a firm believer that this old song from The Wizard of Oz works best when sung simply, allowing the melody and the lyrics to do their work.  Sadly, this isn’t one of those occasions – the vocalist goes in for the swoops and twiddles that tend to annoy me, though I do like his voice, and the children’s choir just pushes the whole thing over into too-sweet-to-be-true territory, where the song becomes mildly disturbing.  Not, however, as disturbing as McFly interpreting ‘You’re the One that I Want’, one of the not-remotely-1959 interpolations to the film version of Grease.  Not McFly and somebody else, just McFly, splitting the duet between the various members.  It’s highly bizarre, not least because you can hear the Busted/McFly sort of sound very clearly.  It’s as though you’re listening to an iPod shuffle which has gone insane.  Instead of playing your songs in a random order, it has taken them and reassigned them to random artists.  I normally quite like McFly in their own way, and I normally like it when someone interprets a song in a fresh way, but it really doesn’t work for me.

After this, thankfully, things become significantly less disturbing.  The matching of artists and songs still seems random on paper, but they mostly work.  Bonnie Tyler gives a nicely vulnerable rendition of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, Cerys Matthews does a wonderful job on ‘Secret Love’, obviously completely unlike the Doris Day original, Gavin Creel trips effortlessly through ‘Young at Heart’ and Jermaine Jackson duets with Jocelyn Brown to cover ‘The Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing.  I’m not taken with Michael Bolton on ‘Theme from New York, New York‘.  I know he’s doing it as if it’s from one of the recent stage biomusical thingummies of the Rat Pack, but his interpretation doesn’t thrill me and I really, really don’t like the alterations that Frank Sinatra made to Fred Ebb’s original lyric (listen to the original by Liza Minnelli, then tell me how the phrase “A number one” improves the song).  Anyway…

After the rather frightening ensemble effort on the first track, I steeled myself before two of the other numbers on the album.  The first was Oliver!‘s ‘Consider Yourself’, covered by Richard Fleeshman (I had to look him up – apparently, he was on Coronation Street) and the London cast of Avenue Q.  In character.  Readers who are familiar with both Avenue Q and ‘Consider Yourself’ will realise that this is likely to be an intriguing track, and it certainly isn’t quite how you normally expect the song to be, but it’s a lot of fun, largely because those involved seem to be enjoying themselves.  The final track features Chickenshed and its co-founder Jo Collins singing a song called ‘Talk Though Me’ from The King’s WebChickenshed is a London theatre group for children of all backgrounds and abilities and is a quite amazing organisation.  The song is a perfect song for them and it’s a beautiful final track for the album. 

I may be disturbed by some of the album’s choices, and it may initially seem as though children’s choirs send me screaming, but this track I like.  It is more the case that I refuse to subscribe to the philosophy that because something is done by children, or done by Christians (such a strange idiosyncrasy of middle-class churchgoers), or done for charity, we should hold it to lower standards or worse still make it automatically ‘great!’  If people perform badly at a charity concert, the fact that they’re raising money for a good cause doesn’t make their singing or acting any better and there’s no reason to listen to Andrea Bocelli and say “oh, he’s very good for a blind man”, which I have actually heard people say.  He’s either good or bad, surely?  Bad children’s choirs make me want to scream.  Unnecessary children’s choirs are possibly worse (as the choir for ‘Over the Rainbow’ isn’t actually bad, in fact it’s rather good, just in the wrong place, I feel).  But a good, appropriate children’s choir is good.

Rant over, what do I think of the album overall?  Well, I’ll listen to it again, though McFly’s track will be skipped from now on.  If I lost it and chose to re-purchase through iTunes or similar, I’d be picky about the tracks and eight, possibly nine, out of the thirteen songs would make it into my library.  Perhaps it’s an album of showtunes for people who don’t really like showtunes?  I don’t know.  It’s interesting, a proportion of the cost goes to a good cause, and a proportion of the tracks are good (rather than just ‘good for a charity release’).  Thank you, Anneka, and thank you, generous people who gave their time to record this album.  Even McFly, who I’m sure won’t mind that I skip them.

The Singing Librarian looks back on 2007


This time last year, I looked back over the previous 12 months from a personal perspective of achievements, experiences and lessons learned.  This year, to avoid creating an annual tradition, my year-end post will look instead at some bests and one or two worsts.

Theatre

There’s really no contest for me.  Parade was not only the best production I’ve seen this year, but the best production I’ve seen for a very long time.  I was fortunate to see a number of excellent productions this year, but this one was head and shoulder above the rest.  It was emotionally moving, intellectually engaging and theatrically inspired.  I haven’t seen Hairspray, the winner of this year’s Evening Standard award, but from my position of ignorance, I cannot see how it can in any way be considered better, unless ‘better’ means ‘more profitable’.  I waxed lyrical on Parade when I saw it, so won’t repeat myself.  It really was extraordinary, though.

Television

It may be odd, but the best thing I’ve seen on television this year is ‘Blink’.  Why odd?  Well, it’s a single episode of Doctor Who, a science fiction drama for a family audience.  It is, however, a series that attracts very talented writers and actors and this episode was wonderful.  Deeply scary (what could be more disturbing than statues that move whenever you stop looking at them?) and probably produced on a lower budget than your average episode with an emphasis on characters being drawn in to the Doctor’s strange world of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff” though meeting him only briefly.  The new incarnation of Who has had some stunning episodes and for me, this was the best thing I caught on the small screen all year.

On the opposite end of the scale is a show that shares the same time-slot when Doctor Who is not being broadcast.  Robin Hood.  It has become traditional for the denizens of my house to gather round and watch this together and although I rather enjoyed the first series, I have found other things to do as this year’s batch of episodes has gone on.  It has taken preposterousness to new heights (or rather depths), which is really saying something since my favourite piece of television this year features a time traveller and living statues.  I didn’t mind the occasional anachronism, the odd bit of perturbing erotic subtext and what have you, but several of the episodes I’ve seen recently have made me despair.  Perhaps not the worst thing I’ve seen, but by far the most disappointing.

Cinema

The Simpsons Movie is probably the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year, with the choral arrangement of ‘Spider-Pig’ over the end credits being a particular delight, but it certainly wasn’t the best.  Enchanted was almost as entertaining, nodding and winking to Disney movies of the past and containing a few wonderful musical moments, but that wasn’t the best of the year either.  Stardust was the most anticipated, and I enjoyed it, but that wasn’t the best.  Atonement was very moving, but that doesn’t clinch it for me.  No, my cinematic highlight of the year is a film I hadn’t even heard of before I arrived at the cinema, and which I only saw because we arrived too late to an attempt to see Stardust.  A drama called Lions for Lambs, which is essentially composed of three conversations, each in a static location (though one of those locations is a mountainside in Afghanistan with Taliban fighters approaching, so static is perhaps not the right word).  Six people.  Talking. 

But it was incredible.  Tom Cruise was superb (not something you’ll hear me say very often), Meryl Streep and Robert Redford proved that they deserve their longevity in the business, and the three younger actors more than had what it took.  It was a film about choices.  Right choices, wrong choices, right reasons, wrong reasons.  Highly politically charged, it managed not to preach any particular angle without sitting on the fence either.  And it left things open.  At least one key choice remained unclear as the credits rolled.  It made me think very hard, and that’s always a good thing.

Music

Leaving aside theatre music (the London cast recording of ParadeNoise Ensemble recorded!  Me and Julietreleased on a public domain label!), the music charts provided some interest for me this year.  John Barrowman’s pop recording debut was underwhelming to these ears, but he was far from the biggest disappointment of the year.  That was Paul Potts, an opera-singing average bloke who won a TV contest called Britain’s Got Talent in June which led to a recording contract and an appearance on the Royal Variety Performance, which is where I finally saw and heard him.  My goodness.  Worst opera singer I’ve ever seen or heard.  He hit the notes and had a fairly pleasant voice, but there was no soul behind the performance, no special spark at all.  I totally fail to see what all the fuss was about.  Meh.

More positively, Michael Bublé released another album, Call Me Irresponsible, which contained many pleasures, though perhaps not as many as previous albums.  Mika was an impressive newcomer, the Plain White T’s had me hooked on ‘Hey There, Delilah’ but my favourite singles this year are perhaps two by Take That.  I know, I know, and I may even have ridiculed some people for liking the group in my time.  But ‘Shine’ and ‘Rule the World’ (the latter written for the film Stardust) were infectiously enjoyable singles.  So much so that I downloaded them from i-Tunes.

Books

This has not been a fantastic year for reading chez Singing Librarian, and much that I have read was not published in 2007.  In fact, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may well be the only 2007 book I’ve read this year.  The books that I have most enjoyed reading this year have been The Moonstoneby Wilkie Collins (I find I enjoy Collins more than I enjoy Dickens, though I still feel that Dickens is in some way ‘better’), Night Watchby Sergei Lukyanenko and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.  All were read over the summer months and all were excellent.  The only execrable book I’ve read this year is The Alchemist.  Blah.

I was given the latest Terry Pratchett and the original illustrated novel of Stardust for Christmas, though, and am greatly looking forward to reading them.

Comics

I don’t appear to have blogged about comics this year, but I have been reading them.  52 concluded well after a dip in excitement and interest levels, going out with a bang in May.  It introduced new characters, brought others to greater prominence and  was followed up by a rather less well-produced weekly series called Countdown.  It has spawned a number of followups and Countdownis a spinoff-producing monster which I have been ignoring more and more as the year plods on.  Most entertaining 52-followup is definitely Booster Gold.  Time travel, egotism, heroism, betrayal and comedy is a heady mixture.  Ongoing series in the DC Universe (home of Batman, Superman et al) which have been most enjoyable are probably the most obscure.  Blue Beetle has introduced a great new hero, and Checkmate, which features political skull-duggery where the lines between superheroes and the United Nations blur, is quite simply an excellent read.

But my favourite is less mainstream and sadly, much less regular.  Rex Libris features the black and white adventures of a librarian who will travel the universe and the time-stream to recover an overdue book, saving lives and defeating monsters along the way.  It’s silly but intriguing and I am thrilled each time it appears.

End

So what do we make of this?  My favourites of the year include a musical about a miscarriage of justice, an episode of television about killer statues, a film about the war on terror, the return of a boy band and the adventures of a gun-toting librarian.  I think we can gather that I have eclectic tastes and that 2007 has managed to cater to them.  2007, I salute you!

Carols For a Cure


It has come to that time of year when legions of people search through their CD collections for their Christmas music, full of bells, pipe organs and heavenly choirs.  Or, quite possible, cloying sentiment about being home for a good old-fashioned Christmas just like we’ve always known.  Almost every household in the land (including many non-believing households who just like the time of year) has at least one of them somewhere, and will dust it off for a few weeks before putting it back to sleep for eleven months.  My mother has quite a number of tapes and CDs now with a whole variety of Christmas tunes on them, and will play nothing else for a week or so either side of the day itself, though she will make an exception for music that was received as a gift.  A favourite yuletide game is to guess who many times the hideous Amy Grant collection of seasonal sentiments will hit the tape deck.  I can generally cope with it once through, more than that is likely to cause an allergic reaction and a sudden urge to listen to rap just for some form of balance.

It has become a yearly tradition with me now to purchase the annual edition of Broadway’s Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure, an album featuring the performers from numerous Broadway shows contributing a wide variety of seasonal tracks in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.  This is a theatrical charity concerned with awareness and fundraising in the continued fight against AIDS, among other causes.  Most of their fundraising is carried out in New York, as their name rather suggests, but this is one of the ways that far-flung people can support them, by ordering their Christmas CDs through their web site.

The first listen to any of these sets is always intriguing, as the different shows come up with an incredible mixture of songs and the odd spoken piece between them.  From traditional arrangements of familiar carols to more modern versions, alongside comedy pieces, new Christmas songs and the occasional track celebrating one of the other holidays celebrated at this time of year.  The results range from side-splitting to yawn-inducing and from beautiful to mildly painful.  But there are always enough of the very good tracks to make the set worth buying even without that extra glow of knowing that money is going to a good cause.

Over the last couple of days, while switching mode from ‘study’ to ‘sleep’, I have given this year’s batch its first spin, and have once again been struck by the mixture and by the generosity of the numerous people who contribute towards it.  Highlights include rather marvellous renditions of such carols as ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and ‘What Child Is This?’, the last of these being sung by the cast of Spring Awakening, a rock musical, perhaps proving they can sing in different idioms.  Light-hearted entries that tickled this librarian include the cast of Wicked deciding how best to sing ‘Jingle Bells’, where the country version really has to be heard to be believed, and the good people of Curtains telling the rather lovely story of the ‘Monotone Angel’.  There’s a bit of Mozart in the pot as well, and the whole set concludes with a duet of the most wonderful ‘O Holy Night’.  Not the greatest version I’ve ever heard, but still welcome.

So here I sit, listening to everyone from the Altar Boyz to Xanadu spread a bit of Christmas cheer in a glorious pot pourri that should contain something for everyone.  Not every track pleases, and one or two are really aimed at Broadway insiders, but this has become part of the countdown for Christmas for the Singing Librarian.  However, can someone please explain ‘Dominick the Donkey’ to me – what is that all about?

Questions are asked and answered


There is a meme going around, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, where bloggers interview one another, and end up giving really quite interesting (or in my case, really quite long) answers.  I think the beauty of this meme is in the nature of who is doing the interviewing.  It’s not people that the bloggers know in their day to day life, who would most likely be fishing for particular bits of information that they already know.  It’s also not people completely disconnected from them, who would end up asking entirely generic questions.  These are people who know their interviewees through the blogosphere, a curious form of social interaction which is simultaneously very open and very reserved, as each word can be chosen, pondered and held back.  All of us leave a whole number of gaps in the narrative of our lives as we blog away, and many of the questions and answers I’ve seen have been filling in some of these gaps, which the blog authors may have been entirely unaware of.

So the meme has been floating around, and I’ve seen it whiz through the periphery of  both the comics blogosphere and the theatre blogosphere, and now it has entered the realm of the blogs that I read more regularly.  I finally decided to be brave and ask for some questions following the questions that Aphra posed to Reed.  Reed, or possibly her ever-present Editor, posed five questions, and warned me that they “are all prompted by the fact I am a NOSY woman”.   As a result, this is probably one of my longest posts ever.  If you really don’t want to know about the real Singing Librarian, look away now and come back in a few days when I start wittering about something less personal.

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Music to shed tears to


I have mentioned before that certain songs can make me cry.  Of course, with my mental wobbliness factor, I don’t necesarily need any songs to accomplish this goal, as at my worst somebody saying hello or a black cloud or nothing at all can open the floodgates, but there are definitely songs which can cause me to well up even when I am in a stable mental state.

I have expressed my tearful admiration for ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ before, and it sits alongside other songs written for Broadway shows before the Second World War which have stood the test of time in both singability and the power to move listeners to tears.  The Gershwin brothers’ ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and Jerome Kern’s ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (lyrics by Otto Harbach) are the greatest examples of this for me.  Songs of love either lost or never found in the first place, expressed with simplicity, directness and a velvety melody.  From the other side of the coin, Irving Berlin’s ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’ (not from a show as far as I know), which speaks of a love of incredible depth and fortitude can make me start to well up, as can ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

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Jason Robert Brown


One of the most talented people writing for theatre at the moment is one Jason Robert Brown.  I tend to get blank looks if I mention him in real life, though I’ve recently discovered some fellow fans of this amazing man.  He not only writes and arranges music, but he plays piano like a demon (a very musical demon) and has an incredible voice with range, depth and passion.  You can tell this from his printed music, full of twiddly notes in the accompaniment and including long, held notes that probably have tenors the world over cursing his name.  Not me, though, as I’ve not yet attempted to learn any of his songs.

In terms of theatre, he’s written a few diverse musicals, none of which I’ve yet seen, though I have tickets to see Parade in September, at the Donmar Warehouse.  Most exciting.  This is his most ‘traditional’ musical, really, and tells the tragic true story of Leo Frank, who was lynched in 1915 for a crime he did not commit.  His other shows are Songs for a New World, which is a song cycle notable for ‘Stars and the Moon’, which has been recorded by a whole host of female artists; The Last Five Years, a two-person musical telling the story of a relationship from beginning to end and end to beginning at the same time; 13, which has a cast of teenagers and centres around a bar mitzvah; and a chunk of the score for the stage adaptation of Urban Cowboy.  They have little, if anything in common, other than JRB’s gift for composing technically challenging, emotionally revealing, passionate music.

Recently, I’ve been listening again to his album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes, which is just as excellent, passionate and engaging as his theatrical scores.  I wish I could explain what it is about his music and performance which impress me so much, but I must simply say that it’s well worth checking his work out.  He’s often referred to as a successor to Stephen Sondheim, but that’s not entirely right, as Jason Robert Brown has a unique musical voice quite different to Sondheim’s, though comparisons on grounds of composing talent are entirely justified.  Brown has a great website which includes a bunch of his songs that can be listened to on-line.  There’s also a blog, which he often uses to address questions from his fans in a consistently amusing fashion.  Do yourself a favour and investigate this talented man.

Gershwin sounds


George GershwinHaving spent the spring immersed in The Sound of Gershwin, I have come through without hating his music, which has to be some sort of achievement.  Indeed, the show introduced me to a whole host of songs I’d either never heard or had completely forgotten, and reminded me why I love some of the perennial favourites.  Here, then, is a highly subjective and personal baker’s dozen of Gershwin songs which are well worth getting to know.  Songs only, as Rhapsody in Blue rather goes without saying. 

13. I’d Rather Charleston. A delightful bit of ephemera from the Jazz Age, introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good and used to great effect in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  It’s a great ‘battle’ duet with the singers each trying to persuade the other to do something – in this case, Fred wants Adele to study, but Adele just wants to Charleston.  The lyric is by Desmond Carter, which is a bit of a mystery to me, as the rest of the show’s score had Ira Gershwin lyrics.  Pointless, but great fun, and it makes wonderful music to dance to, oddly enough – surely it couldn’t have been an excuse for a routine?

12. How Long Has This Been Going On?  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how good a song this really is, and it should certainly be docked points for including the word ‘ninny’ in the lyrics (really, Ira, what were you thinking?), but Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of it in the film of Funny Face is absolutely charming.

11. I Got Rhythm.  This one doesn’t need much introduction, really, as it’s one of the Gershwin brothers’ best known songs.  From Girl Crazy, which also introduced But Not For Me, Bidin’ My Time, Treat Me Rough and Embraceable You, all marvellous songs, this song is the one which made Ethel Merman a star.  It’s worth tracking down her version just to marvel at the lung power on display.  It’s not a sophisticated song, but it makes me smile, and the introductory verse, including the immortal line “I’m chipper all the day” makes the song extra special, even if most people leave it out these days.

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Release the music!


Lilian recently sent me some information about releasethemusic.org, because she knows that I am absurdly interested in issues concerning music, performance and copyright. This website is run by the Open Rights Group (an organisation which I sometimes agree with, but sometimes think are very misguided) and concerns plans to extend the length of time that sound recordings are protected by copyright. In a rare move for me, I ‘signed’ their on-line petition, so it seems that writing a blog entry about the issue is a good idea as well.

Copyright is a complicated thing, which the library and information profession constantly struggles with. It is bound up with many other issues: data protection versus freedom of information; access to information versus the right to control intellectual property; the conflicting rights of information creator, disseminator and user. In general terms, librarians are often seen to be upholders of copyright, yet are foes of censorship and are sometimes oddly anti-establishment (see the fun and games of the FBI vs. ‘radical militant librarians’). And yet, although I do indeed agree that copyright is in general a good thing, and do not agree with most of the arguments against it, I can see that the term of copyright protection is perhaps excessive (generally 70 years after the death of the author) and that this is particularly true in the case of sound recordings. 

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Noise Ensemble


On Thursday, I attended a performance of Noise Ensemble, a ‘percussion spectacular’ by local composer Ethan Lewis Maltby.  This was the show’s final stop on a British tour taking in over 20 locations.  One of the major reasons for attending was that I was involved with Ethan’s musical Courtenay a few years ago, which was immense fun.  I was in the chorus, and absolutely loved the music we were singing.

The show was a lot of fun.  It was, as advertised, jolly noisy. And there was indeed an ensemble, of ten incredible percussionists, one of them occasionally doubling up on bass guitar and another once on lead guitar (I think – he was at the back, and I couldn’t quite tell what he had in his hands!).  It contained a number of pure theatrical ‘wow’ moments – the sort of thing that makes me go all tingly even when I know how it’s achieved.  The opening had the ensemble appearing from nowhere, and there was a wonderfully funny bit featuring a couple of ‘flying’ drums.  In terms of technical wizardry, the production really outdid itself.  Lots of moving lights, plus smoke, bubbles and a video screen which shows excerpts from ‘Noise TV’, a group of channels devoted to drumming.  Several of these excerpts were very funny.

The show really opened my eyes to what could be achieved with various percussion instruments.  The second act contained segments featuring triangles and tambourines, which were both amusing and impressive at the same time.  And the tuned percussion numbers were absolutely beautiful.

Some of the louder, more drum-based sections were less my cup of tea, but I was consistently impressed by the performers’ energy and Ethan’s compositional skills throughout.  The whole piece was dynamic, with movement being a key component, complementing the rhythms and sounds of the instruments, creating dramatic and comedic moments.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre, and I’m very glad I went.  If it hadn’t been by Ethan, I would have overlooked it, which would have been a real shame.  Note to self – take more risks in theatrical attendance in future!

Website: http://www.noiseensemble.com

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