Monday, March 31, 2014

New Johnny Cash album (and others not to miss)

Thirty years ago, when Johnny Cash had hit bottom at Columbia Records after a 26-year association, he recorded a series of songs the label decided not to release. Maybe the slick production by Billy Sherrill didn't suit the Nashville of the time. Maybe they didn't think Cash was marketable any more. So we've waited until now for the release of "Out Among the Stars." It's not Cash's best work, but it's well worth owning, and its high points -- including the title song by Adam Mitchell -- have the world-weary honesty that ranks with the best Cash could do. (His version of "Stars" outstrips even Waylon Jennings', and that's saying something.)

The Columbia Legacy album remains a grab bag of comedy ("If I Told You Who It Was," about a one-night stand), outlaw songs ("I Drove Her Out of My Mind," a double-entendre number about a despondent ex-boyfriend), gospel ("I Came to Believe") ) and duets with June Carter Cash ("Baby Ride Easy") and Jennings ("I'm Movin' On"). The self-deflating "She Used To Love Me a Lot" gets a traditional rendering and a newer, spooky version produced by Elvis Costello. The musicians included the cream of the country crop back then: Jerry Douglas on dobro, Pig Robbins on piano, Marty Stuart on mandolin, Pete Drake on steel guitar. Cash completists MUST have it, but every Cash fan should give it a hearing.

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" will probably tour someday, but why wait until then to enjoy it? In fact, the lyrics and music by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak -- which border at times on the sardonic wit of Gilbert and Sullivan -- will be easier to enjoy with the booklet that accompanies the Ghostlight Records release in your hands. Here's a sample:

Like the movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," the writers have adapted the Roy Horniman novel about a social climber who realizes he can become an earl if he murders eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Bryce Pinkham makes the homicidal hero amiable (and sings well), and protean Jefferson Mays somehow creates eight different characters. (He half-sings and half-talks his numbers, but that works in this case.) The female leads, naughty Lisa O'Hare and sweet Lauren Worsham, round out a satisfying main cast.

You couldn't quite call Alison Fraser's "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" a one-woman show. Though it has linking dialogue from his plays, much of that from "A Streetcar Named Desire," creator David Kaplan and singer/speaker Fraser concentrate on songs quoted or mentioned in Williams' work, from the most famous scripts ("It's Only a Paper Moon" from "Streetcar") to the most obscure (Noel Coward's "The Party's Over Now," from "Clothes for a Summer Hotel").

The album from that show, also on Ghostlight, presents us with a woman on her last emotional legs. She has had too much to drink, perhaps, and certainly too little to cling to in life. Most of the songs deal with lost love, including the superb "Sophisticated Lady" shown in this video, but they're varied enough to take us though a series of moods. Fraser (who's currently touring America as Madame Morrible in "Wicked") can do everything but yodel, though she tries that on Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose." Pianist Allison Leyton-Brown and a small jazz ensemble provide warm, subtle accompaniment.

"Warm" and "subtle" are also apt adjectives for the new album of French songs by baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida. "The Good Song" takes its title from a cycle by Gabriel Faure that fills up about half of the album; I'm more partial to Francis Poulenc's "Chanson Gaillardes," with their rudely funny lyrics from anonymous 17th-century texts. Here's a sample of his voice from one of his previous albums, both of which were devoted to Schubert's songs:

Like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of his idols, Meglioranza has a light, beautiful voice that can be plaintive (as in Debussy's "Fetes Galantes" on "The Good Song") or funny or touching. Uchida accompanies him with a supple and winning style, never receding into the background or overshadowing the singer. If you like classical chansons and lieder, this is a team to remember.