Thursday, August 26, 2010

Right On, McCue!

It seems that every summer my wife and I discover someone new and exciting. This year is no different. Allow me to introduce Anne McCue to you.

I knew of her work by virtue of her CDs being inexpensive at my local used CD store.

I'm willing to take a chance on an artist if the risk is minimal. In her case, her CDs were priced at $3.99 (promotional copies). My interest was piqued because she looked interesting--a blonde wielding an electric guitar. It seemed like she wrote most of her material, and I liked the song titles. So I was ready for more.

I enjoyed the CDs well enough, but they were retired to my shelves until I noticed her name on the bill at one of my favorite clubs in the Boston area, Johnny D's. Then my wife and I began listening again to the two releases I owned. Acclimated to her material, we eagerly awaited the gig.

Anne McCue was a wonder. She is tall and striking, and she was blessed with monster band at the gig. Oh, how I love to be in a club having that wall of sound envelop me! I find her work mesmerizing. She takes great pains to write good lyrics and tell a story, as well as playing the electric guitar for all it's worth.

I told her that I'm so grateful to know her material because she stretches me as a listener. I love her lyrics and her singing, but her guitar work educates me in the joys of high amplification and long improvisations.

She has a dry wit on stage, and her Australian accent will echo in your head long after the concert is over. She works closely with Jess Leary, who sings harmony and plays rhythm guitar. Great combo!

Her latest release is Broken Promise Land. Follow the links in this blog to learn more about this exceptional artist and, by all means, if you're lucky enough to have her appearing in your area, go to see her!


David Bowling, writing on the site BlogCritics, has this to say about Anne McCue's latest effort.

She improvises songs "in a manner that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud."

"For the album, she has wisely surrounded herself with a veteran rock rhythm section. Bones Hillman of Midnight Oil and drummer Ken Coomer of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco lay down a solid foundation upon which she builds her guitar sound. While some tracks add a second guitarist and some brass at times, I can’t help but think it is within the structure of a basic power trio that she is at her best. The focus there is upon her vocals and guitar, which is where it should be.

A blogger named Simon, writing on the No Depression site:

Described by McCue as “a tribute to some of my favourite bands and guitarists” at its heart is McCue's reverence to her musical influences on which she draws heavily without allowing them to dictate the end product - it's no generic tribute but a real sum of its parts, the writing, the vocals, the guitar work and production, keeping control of all aspects McCue has put together the album she wanted to make - there’s no for me this is her best yet, nailed on.

Check out Anne performing the single from the new CD, "Don't Go to Texas (Without Me)".

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Song Is Ended

My heart is heavy right now. I've just finished Haunted Heart, a biography of singer Susannah McCorkle. In it author Linda Dahl lays bare how McCorkle struggled with mental illness. I never appreciated how deep was the emotional hole she lived in.

I fell in love with her singing in the late 1970s, around the time my consciousness of what constitutes great lyric writing was raised by the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. At that time Susannah McCorkle had released several of her own songbooks (of the songs of Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, and Yip Harburg) that introduced her to American audiences.

I was delighted by her work. These albums became a prized part of my collection, held in equal esteem with Bobby Short's songbooks and the Revisited series produced by the "incurable insane" Ben Bagley.

What I admire about these works is the light they shed on terrific songs by great composers that didn't make posterity's final cut. They gave me an avenue to pursue in my listening after I'd fully digested the "standards".

Many of these obscure songs were pickled in humor and vibrant wordplay. How easily my spirits were raised when I sang along with Susannah to Harry Warren's "I Take to You" (like a duck takes to water/like the Irish to a stew/like a lover to a night of dreaming/I take to you) or Yip Harburg's "Thrill Me" (let your kiss delicious/have a tinge of vicious/though it's all fictitious).

Susannah McCorkle was one of those special singers who made me remember a lyric upon first listen. I later learned that she was a fiction writer as well as a singer. No surprise there: she really "told the story" in a song, choosing to focus exclusively on the lyric.

It's amazing how many singers disregard this concept. Instead of communicating the lyric straight, many of them attend to the musicality of vowels and consonants, either bending or stretching them in order to contribute their voice as an "instrument" to the overall sound. You'll find this approach from many singers who, unlike Susannah McCorkle, studied jazz in college.

Susannah's inspiration was Billie Holiday. That's both a blessing and a curse. Early in McCorkle's career, her vocal similarity to Holiday undoubtedly brought her attention, much like it has for Madeline Peyroux today. Additionally, McCorkle's mining of lost gems from the great songwriters distinguished her, especially when you consider her work was in an era (the '70s) when jazz singing was at a nadir.

Im my memory Holiday rarely, if ever, scatted or had long instrumental solos in her songs. They're all very tight, running 2 to 4 minutes. It is all about story-telling with her: you are gripped by her words because she seems to be baring her soul, as if the song was written for and about her. This is the trick of the great singers.

In Haunted Heart, Linda Dahl explains that McCorkle was often criticized for the constraints she put upon the musicians who played behind her. Considering that she was paying for their time, I have little sympathy for them, and I regret the hard time that they gave her. I know it led to a less than enjoyable creative experience, but respect must be paid for what McCorkle was trying to achieve: unrelenting focus on the words and emotion of a song.

The Songbook series gained Susannah McCorkle notice with mainly the cognescenti in Manhattan. Her 1982 album The People That You Never Get to Love showed her moving a new direction. Linda Dahl notes:

(The People That You Never Get to Love was) a new departure for her, an album she hoped would take her career to a younger audience...(it) stressed contemporary material...Susannah set herself against the trend of that time. While pop singers were "crossing over" (here Dahl cites Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt), Susannah was going in the opposite direction, from standards to pop.

To characterize the music on this album as pop is a real stretch. The title track, written by Rupert Holmes (of "The Pina Colada Song" fame) is the only number that might appeal to a non-jazz audience.

No, the only change here is that McCorkle is widening her net. She chooses individual songs by jazz songsmiths--once again, as with the songwriting masters, she selects obscure songs that deserve revival. What impeccable taste McCorkle displays!

But that's not the major reason why these songs were selected. Songs like "I'm Pullin' Through" were chosen because they directly reflect a painfully familiar emotional state for Susannah. I can only imagine how difficult this song (about thanking people who have lifted you out of a depression) is to hear for anyone who knew her well.

I'm pullin' through
and it's all because of you
If your turn came
I hope it never will
'Cause I've been through the mill
I won't forget this debt
I'm pullin' through

In a way, the only audience McCorkle sought to satisfy was herself. Singing was a release for her, one of the few ways she found happiness. She chose songs that told her story, undoubtedly believing that they would be the best songs to sing because her heart would be fully into the lyric.

I completely understand this point of view. I heartily recommend this album as the one Susannah McCorkle release to own. The emotional pallette presented is complex.

There's the wistful regret (a signature emotion for Susannah) in the title song and in her rendering of Blossom Dearie's "Bye Bye Country Boy". There's nostalgia expressed in Neil Sedaka's "The Hungry Years" and "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before". There's aching desire in "Alone Too Long" (written by Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields). There's acceptance of sorrow in "Rain Sometimes", an outstanding song written by Arthur Hamilton of "Cry Me a River" fame.

Still evident is Susannah McCorkle's sprightly side in Dave Frishberg's "Foodophobia" and Burton Lane and Frank Loesser's "The Lady's in Love with You". As a listener, I found these upbeat songs a welcome relief from the ponderousness of most of the album.

As I write, I'm looking at Susannah's signature on my album. I heard her live for the first time at Rick's Cafe in Chicago. I recall her sitting for a while at my table. My friend and I found her very sweet and engaging. I hope she took some encouragment from the fact that a young guy like me dug her music.

The next time that I saw her was in a 1983 show called "Songbirds of Jazz" with Maxine Sullivan and Carol Sloane. I enjoyed my exposure to Maxine Sullivan, who had a sweet, swinging style (minus Susannah's intense emotional engagement). Sullivan was straight-ahead in her delivery, much like Susannah, and unlike Carol Sloane, who scatted much more like traditional jazz vocalists will do.

I still followed Susannah as time went on, but I became gradually disenchanted with her work. I loved the appearance of one more Songbook (Thanks for the Memory: Songs of Leo Robin), but that was the last truly energetic release. From then on her releases were too heavily weighted with sad, slow numbers.

Take 1985's How Do You Keep the Music Playing? as an example. She slows down what should be a stirring anthem ("There's No Business Like Show Business") and remakes it almost into a dirge. (Dahl reveals this is due to McCorkle learning that Irving Berlin, like her, possessed a "dark edge of depression".) I found it practically unlistenable. I was also displeased to see old familiar standards like "A Fine Romance" and "Check to Cheek" on the album. "Been there, done that," I thought as I listened and heard nothing new being brought to their interpretation. (Although, thankfully, they weren't slowed down!)

Still, McCorkle was worth listening to for me because of finds like "While the City Sleeps" and her deft handling of Brazilian songs like "Outra Vez". (A fluent speaker of Portuguese, she was soon to release Sabia, a wonderful collection of bossa nova numbers in both English and Portuguese.)

I found 1986's Dream, worth skipping, save for her rendition of Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance". This album starts to show record label pressure being applied to her selection. (How else to account for old familiars like "Bewitched" and "All of Me"?) Great photos of Susannah as a child on the back cover, however.

I still collected her music, although with less eagerness than before. I was glad that I could always count on a discovery, some song I'd never heard before. But these numbers were always sandwiched between the old familiars.

I continued to hear Susannah McCorkle live when I had a chance. I know I saw her twice at Scullers in Boston--once by herself, and the other time on a program with Mark Murphy. I still enjoyed her. I had no idea of the turmoil she was experiencing, including the fact that she was insecure about her appearance.

The last time I saw her is when she made an appearance at a local Borders. It was a program expressly intended for children. Susannah's idea seemed to be that the standards had the ability to appeal to their born musicality. Anyway, I talked to her a bit then. She did strike me as being kind of low at the time.

I was devastated when I heard about her suicide a few years later. To me, the musical world really lost a singer of significance. Who has taken her place? I continue to search for other jazz singers that have a similar appeal, to no avail. The closest I've come is either Carol Fredette (who is quoted several times in Dahl's biography) or Mary Cleere Haran (whose eridition reminds me of McCorkle).

After reading Haunted Heart, I was so moved by her struggle, and her courage on a professional level. I find myself continually thinking of the deeper meaning of her art. Her complete dedication to the lyric left her vulnerable. Most listeners are not like me; they don't remember the words of a song most of the time. Most jazz listeners expect an interplay between singer and supporting players.

Susannah McCorkle always stood apart. A decade after her death, her work continues to raise the question: What constitutes jazz singing? pop singing? She was a hybrid and suffered enormously from not neatly fitting into either category.

I miss her so much.

Click here to see the only video I could find on-line of Susannah McCorkle. It's part of an interview with Charlie Rose.

Click here to listen to "Fresh Air" program that aired a week after Susannah McCorkle's death. Terry Gross was a passionate promoter of her work.

I also recommend David Hajdu's essay on Susannah McCorkle from his collection Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Second Time Around

As you can tell by reading my blog entries, I am an enormous fan of the singer-songwriter. I've been writing about my favorites since I began this blog a couple of years ago. It has struck me that I've yet to write about the two giants in my esteem: Randy Newman and Paul Simon.

Perhaps I figure that there's not much to say. They practically created this musical category. Their music will endure because any future practitioners of the craft must study their work.

I was pleased to read in The New York Times today that Paul Simon's musical The Capeman is being performed again in Central Park this weekend. How clearly I recall his struggle to get the financing and get this work on Broadway in 1998! (He began the project in the early '90s. Basically, he spent almost a decade on it!) I made a trip to New York to see the show and loved it. I was crestfallen to then learn that it had been cancelled after only 68 performances.

Boy, Paul Simon must have felt so stung after that! I'm sure that he sunk some of his own personal fortune in it, along with his creative capital. In the years since, I've seen practically no discussion of this work in the press about the singer. Who knows? Maybe the topic is out-of-bounds!

Anyway, it is a typically terrific Paul Simon record, filled with sinuous rhythms and top-notch lyrics. The article in the Times suggests that perhaps this weekend-long revival is an opening step towards a re-introduction of the work on Broadway. (The argument is that audiences are now more open to it, given the success of shows like Fela! and In the Heights.)

I'm hoping that happens. As I also hope to one day again see Faust, Randy Newman's stab at a musical. I saw it at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and adored it. I was disappointed that it never made it to New York.

Both works definitely deserve a second look. If you've never heard them before, get listening!

Click here to watch Paul Simon sing "Bernadette" from The Capeman. Dueting with him is one of the stars from the 1998 show, Marc Antony.

Clikc here to watch Bonnie Raitt perform "Feels Like Home" accompanied by Randy Newman. It's from Faust.