Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

My Heart Says Go and
more heartfelt music
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here we have a modern musical with a message about following one's heart. Following that are some recent releases by vocalists whose performances touch the heart.

Broadway Records

Burning with characters' angst and ambitions, conflicts and catharses, My Heart Says Go is a vibrant contemporary musical about perseverance and pursuing dreams. Combustive to the point of being volcanic at times, fraught moments take musical form in throbbing fits of unleashed anger and accusations, simmering rueful laments and effective use of hip-hop to express defiance and determination. Employing contrasting music genres emphasizes the striking differences between generations. Strong voices populate this studio cast recording to bring out the strong convictions of the plot's people.

Basing the saga in part on his own life/career choices, abandoning medicine for music, Jorge Rivera-Herrans (whose protagonist, Indigo, is likewise a tunesmith) wrote and developed the piece during his student days at the University of Notre Dame with the guidance of teacher Matt Hawkins. The latter eventually contributed a new book and directed a student production and the professional cast on this recording. (It had another Indiana incarnation just last month and regional, school, and community groups are encouraged to mount it, as the pair are advocates of new theatre being more available.)

As Indigo, featured on 11 of the 17 numbers, Rubén J. Carbajal ably conveys the mood swings on this kinetic ride of rage, regret and reflection. Ever present is the tenacious pursuit of goals. Hope hovers, perspective is noted. Javier Muñoz is formidable as Indigo's father; both spar and set off sparks in the battle of wills and barrage of accusations in "Father Vs. Son." They then succeed in painting sobered realizations about damage done by words hurled in the "Heat of the Moment."

Erica Ito, singing the role of Indigo's burdened friend Clara, whose woes and worries with her own parent mirror the male dynamic, also adding the valuable misery-loves-company commiseration angle that is not overplayed. She shares "Smile Away" with rich-voiced Jessie Mueller as Clara's mother (expertly delivering pathos); the lyric describes their shared M.O. of responding to sorrow with despair, denial and distractions. All four singers swirl dramatically through doubts and decisions in "Foot Down," believably confronting impulses and impasses ("Where am I to go from here?/ Tell me, do I take the wheel and drive/ Or do I let him steer?"). Ensemble members' voices add heft and intensity on this and many numbers, with those performers also taking on some solo work. Aurelia WIlliams' glorious voice stands out.

The lyrics can be poignant and articulate, but some are more like plain-spoken venting or stream-of-consciousness thoughts set to music. One number, about unsuccessful job hunting, "No," shines with the mix of shouts of the title's negative word and its homophone of "know" in numerous phrases and some neatly rhymed lines such as "I found ten new venues lined up/ Hoping that I wind up signed up" and "Thinking of the dream/ How I can't lose steam/ How we used to be a team." Sadly, other observations in the lyric don't please the ear that way because they are encumbered by settling for near-rhyming words. Alas, other otherwise interesting songs here also often rely on that unfortunate habit. But the singers forge ahead, sweeping through them, aided by the drive of the music under the direction of Geoffrey Ko.

If you're seeking a bold, high-energy endeavor with heart, go straight toward My Heart Says Go. This roller coaster ride, with its carpe diem flavor, should find favor with audiences; its characters' hopes and struggles strike relatable chords.

CD | Digital

If you're a fan of pop music from the 1960s and '70s, and/or have not been living under a rock or rock-and-roll embargo, you're likely to have heard the material revisited in the on-fire new recording by singer Farah Alvin. If you don't know them from the original hit versions, maybe you discovered discs with renditions by any of the many who've attempted cover versions. Are you late to the game for "It's Too Late" and know it from the TV show "Glee" or Alice Ripley or just know it from the stage piece about its co-writer, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical? Maybe you recall playing "Solitaire" more on records by Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, Robert Goulet, or Josh Groban. Is your go-to treatment of "You're So Vain" the one by Liza Minnelli or perhaps Marilyn Manson with Johnny Depp? I suppose it's possible that you only know "Heartbreaker" from its cover by The Chipmunks. Well, let me recommend listening to these numbers, all as sung by Alvin (Farah Alvin, not the most assertive member of the aforementioned trio, The Chipmunks) on On Vinyl.

When a set of cover songs intentionally comprises well-known material from a certain period (or is presented as a tribute album to a singer or writer), the key decision is about how closely one will follow the original blueprints of tempi and arrangements. Slavishly? Somewhat? Or the path not taken, finding unchartered territory for the chart-toppers? The arrangements by Michael Holland, whose background includes years of deep dives into vintage pop in the New York cabaret world, evidence fondness for the way the oldies were famously formed. He generates memories by leaning very much toward an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy that lets the original architectures be honored and celebrated.

Despite owing much to the vinyl ancestors, things don't descend into artless, perfunctory musical cloning that feels like karaoke that's watered down. On the contrary, things are rather juiced up at times. The memory-invoking modeling includes the spots where we hear the "supporting cast" of back-up vocalists echoing lines or singing along. These folks are simply top-notch and very much part of the mix, with high-octane energy. They, the fervent Farah and the band members, sound vigorous and consistently involved.

Some liberties are taken, with radiant results. (I would have welcomed more wandering from the beaten paths.) "Wichita Lineman" becomes enchantingly more ethereal, its musical coating inspired by the ambience of "I'm Not in Love." Also extra dreamy is "Poetry Man." And there are attention-grabbing surprises created by weaving some things into medleys (the 11 tracks thus actually present a total of 15 oldies). The band includes the multi-tasking Holland (who is also the producer) joining in on background vocals and playing piano, keyboards, and acoustic guitar (with the electric guitar work handled by Mike Rosengarten). In addition to these instruments, we hear bass and percussion, with brass and saxes on a few tracks.

Farah Alvin's dazzlingly roof-raising high belt takes on challenge after challenge as she unabashedly wields it to channel the roar of rockers of yore (female and male) or a soulful wail. In calmer mode, her voice can chug along with the beat or drive it, and can be elastic to navigate the journey of Joni Mitchell's melody for "Help Me."

Farah Alvin makes the oldies sound glorious and good–as good as "new." She will be performing these evergreens at The Green Room 42 in midtown Manhattan on May 19.

Little Moon Records
CD | Digital

An interesting thing sometimes happens to jazz and pop singers when they become parents. After exposing their progeny and themselves to children's songs, they want to record and/or write some themselves. Often, their old and new perspectives on music and savviness about what's entertaining combine to make their efforts avoid the pitfalls of ickier, slapdash or clueless kiddie products. Allegra Levy, who's been in the jazz world as vocalist and writer, is now also a mom of music, offering sunny Songs for You and Me, warmly sung. Lilting melodies hug joyful lyrics.

The clear and soothing voice is pleasing and unpretentious. Instrumentation and playing have sparkle and spunk with the presence of ukulele, banjo, glockenspiel, toy piano, and celeste merrily mixed in with the more common sounds. The "sweetness" quotient redolent in fare for the very young is certainly here, but the vocal timbre and attitude are more like natural honey than force-fed sugary syrup. And, thankfully, Allegra Levy doesn't overplay the "cute" card with giggles or squeals. The lyric to the appealing "Stella for Star" has tender name-dropping references to her daughter and the family dog seen on the CD cover. The gentle lullaby ("A Quiet Song") is a balm-like winner and "It's So Hard to Be You" is adult-friendly in its sly pity party for weary, overburdened adults.

Many items in the 13-track set are, at least, kindergarten-adjacent. Reveling in "rub-a-dubba-dubby" delights of splashing about "In the Tub" with its resident duckie and professing that this is a panacea to "wash away your troubles" with the bubbles may not be every adult's cup of tea (or bath water). We might arguably think of some of the other bubbly fare as quirky old-time novelty songs or as nostalgic reminders of childhood concerns rather than expect to be entertained as we would by material with an expected "grown-up" target audience.

Also notable numbers are a couple of ingratiating "teaching tool" items that incorporate vocabulary for languages other than English. There are background vocals on some selections, including the presence of kids chiming in. Your inner child may want to also, but, obviously, children and doting parents are going to get the most out of Songs for Me and You for frequent plays during playtime, bath time, meal time (check out the nod to "Noodles!"), and bedtime.

Allegra Levy and the recording's participating keyboardist Jason Yeager will be entertaining at Third Street Music School in Greenwich Village this Sunday afternoon to celebrate the new recording and, of course, Mother's Day.