Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

New Brown; Old Black & White:
Jason Robert Brown's moving material &
vintage songs about movies
Review by Rob Lester

Theatre composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown performs a thoughtful collection of emotionally charged, mature material. And then we go antiquing and find relics that rhapsodize about and tease the world of movies when they were still in their infancy.


Ghostlight Records

Whether he's taking a searing look at prejudice in the South (Parade), along for the romp of a Honeymoon in Vegas, or examining what weighs down and tests romantic relationships (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County), or his stand-alone songs, the work of Jason Robert Brown is distinctive and forceful. The material is generally striking, usually thought-provoking and intense, sometimes unsettling and unblinking in its frenzy and always worth our attention. The fact that he's released a set of recent miscellaneous work is gratifying news indeed.

Facing grown-up feelings and a roller coaster contemporary world like a latter-day intrepid Don Quixote, Brown looks reality in the eye, sometimes with a tear in his own, while fighting the good fight. The music is typically exciting and bracing, the lyrics uncompromisingly direct, and his singing and piano playing exhibiting a rich humanity and underlying tenderness. There are bruises and blisters, but he's charging ahead. Giving up is not an attractive choice, maybe not an option.

When unleashed and uncoiled, Mr. Brown's voice is vigorous and invigorating. He's fierce. It's a natural sound that never seems "put on" or posing. There's a directness and openness that engages the listener immediately and commands not just attention, but caring. His piano playing can be quite muscular, throbbing rather than pounding, with an urgency matched by his singing and the flow of the material itself, confessional or conversational, but without wasting or mincing words. If there is anger, it feels intrinsically justified and focused, cathartic rather than purely self-indulgent. A connection is visceral and the vulnerability with a frequent sigh suggests he is speaking not just for himself, but for maybe you and me, too.

The recording starts off in atypical low gear, his usual soaring hot air balloon apparently deflated, a devoted but defeated troubadour expressing a disclaimer about the ability to achieve his intended mission du jour: presenting a message of "Hope." It was written November 9, 2016: his raw reaction to the results of that election day in America. No, it doesn't name names or name-call, so it could easily be generalized to work for other tribulations and triggers. Within the short piece, he goes from the heavy, sad sigh all about doubt to a germ of determination—the much-needed glimmer of light and personal fortitude that may show possibilities for moving on. On a personal note, he finds motivation in his role model responsibility as a parent, but notably directly addresses the listener, too: "I got through lots of things I didn't think I could./ And so did you./ I know that's true." Unlike other tracks with a band and back-up singers, this one is successfully spare, just his own piano and vocal—an intimate address.

The self-empowerment anthem about someone refusing to be treated as "Invisible" is thoroughly successful and convincing in its confidence. Here and elsewhere, we get the thrilling sense of real robustness or rage at the ready, being instantly shot out of a cannon with musical and emotional fuel to burn. The immediate impact can be in the fresh-out-of-the-gate rhythm of an instrumental intro, the insistent pulse (with thanks to frequent collaborator, electric bassist Randy Landau), or just choice words that economically paint a first picture, as he does in "The Hardest Hill": ""He passes by./ You catch his eye./ He tilts his head and smiles." This particular piece is especially addictive with its hook of a possibly unanswerable nagging question: "Why is falling in love so easy/ But holding onto love gets harder all the time?" What I especially admire in the performance is that this line and its similar alternate (changing the latter half to refer to the challenge metaphorically as named by the song's title) come up again and again but don't feel manipulatively ear-wormy. The repetition gets under your skin because the unrest artfully varies in intensity, thus justifying asking once more and then again why the "climb" is so daunting. So much on the recording grabs attention and maintains it throughout a track and has staying power on repeat listenings.

One of the earliest selections, 2006's "One More Thing Than I Can Handle," about resisting temptation, has its solo vocal handled by guest Kate McGarry. She's a refreshing singer whose other recorded work has been quite accomplished and affecting, and she takes jazzy risks. This is a fairly underplayed performance, erring on the side of caution's precipice, perhaps appropriate to the mood of the striving-for-control-and-calm character portrayed. But her voice is certainly welcome.

In his own way, Jason Robert Brown does not suffer fools gladly and his gaze is hard and firm. He can drip sarcasm and challenge his addressees (including himself), teeth gritted, unflinching. This is perfectly illustrated in "A Song About Your Gun." It's tough stuff. It stays with you. His words can feel timeless like the plaints or observations of an old soul observer, or flash with modern usage, such as the reference to social media actions in "Everybody Knows:" "I know it's been re-grammed, re-posted and re-tweeted/ But I'm expecting you to still delete it." Spoiler alert: What does everybody (else) know? The message most common to pop songs since their dawning: "I love you." It's oddly sweet. And, like so much of the man's work in writing and performance, there's a restlessness that is an engine that can bring explosiveness at almost any time. It can be a cry of pain or the exultant shout of jubilation. When he chooses, he can radiate calm and assurance, as in the soothing moments of "Caravan of Angels" with seductive saxophones helping pave the velvet path.

For me, the highlight comes at the very end, finishing on the high, enthused confidence that the opening "Hope" could only whisper. It's the throbbing, thrilling promise of "Wait 'Til You See What's Next," the feel-good track of the year. It's the panacea we crave after being put (willingly) through the wringer. Like West Side Story's classic "Something's Comin'" it holds its head and expectations confidently, unquestioned. Bubbling with anticipation, we long to know "What's across the road/ what's behind the wall/ What's around the corner ... just beyond the hill/ Just along the river/ Or perched on the edge of the great abyss."

As usual when I am still digesting the newest work by this man, I already can't wait to see what's next.


Harbinger Records/ Musical Theater Project

May I suggest a worthwhile trip in a time machine? In this era when movies are readily accessible not just at multiplex cinemas, but can be streamed and downloaded to watch any old time, it may be difficult to think of motion pictures as a new-fangled wonder. At first silent, and in black and white, they were more of an Event to go out to see, not assumed to be available again. No wonder they inspired a bounty of songs, many celebrating the genre and its early stars. Harbinger Records/Musical Theater Project recordings have brought us many historic delights, but the charming and cheery package named after one of its many numbers, Let's Go in to a Picture Show is an invitation tough to resist, even if we're just listening and the movies are in our minds. Seems like a fair trade-off/turnaround, since the "flickers" were all about visuals, once without spoken or sung words. These are genuine songs of their day (a few on piano rolls, their lyrics not heard), culled from contemporaneous recordings, so it's a time capsule of the real deal. The material is all within several years on either side of being 100 years old.

Quaint or even alien to modern ears and their earbuds, and 21st century sensibilities, what now arguably seems innocent can also be fascinating as a window to another way of life. Don't worry—you'll be pulled up to speed with perspective and explanations of ancient references and names faded from fame with the helpfully informative liner notes by Ron Magliozzi (curator of the Department of Film for New York City's Museum of Modern Art) who co-produced with Eric D. Bernhoft, who did the sound restoration and pianola realizations. Yes, they are gallant and honest enough, if a bit melodramatic, to state that we are hereby "warned" that there will be the sounds of "age and wear" of the source material, some of which dates back to the days of cylinders, pre-records. A generous optimist may claim this adds necessary atmosphere and authenticity, but even the spoiled audiophile curmudgeon should begrudgingly admit that it's not in the deal-breaking, ear-aching category. By and large, it's all several notches above "more than acceptably listenable," despite the understandable crackle or muffled tones here and there. The historical value is worth some struggle and strain to be carefully listening past the distractions evident on some of the big banquet of 26 tracks. The lyrics are all there in the booklet (except for the final and "newest" item—they're arranged chronologically—one of those most likely to be somewhat familiar to the casual nostalgic music fan, "The Sheik of Araby").

The cornucopia is nicely varied and redundancy-resistant, so as not to pile up too many similar compositions on similar specific topics. However, the non-sufeited among the listeners (see me raise my hand) will likely have appetites whetted for more by the booklet's casual title-teasing (naming non-included things that sound intriguing or amusing).

Since much of what's here falls under the heading of "novelty songs" or "comedy numbers," poking fun at human behavior and the fans' fascination with film, titles indeed often tell you what to expect: how the family back home is now ignored "Since Mother Goes to Movie Shows"; a crush from afar on a star ("My Picture Girl"); the practical advice (?) about dark movie theatres, to "Take Your Girlies to the Movies" ("if you can't make love at home"); the offhandedly chipper "Poor Pauline" (about the predicament-prone heroine of the series Perils of Pauline). An especially likeable piece tells about Dad committing robbery and bullfighting and more—all in a day's work of scenes being filmed because he's an actor and "He's Working in the Movies Now." Billy Murray has a sly storyteller's way with a lyric here.

The instrumentals sprinkled throughout give respite in the big tunestack from the high-whimsy-quotient of story-songs. Jaded mindsets and changing times will make us hear things differently now: the guy with "His Cute Moving Picture Machine" filming the neighbors' presumed private canoodling would now be brought up on charges of voyeurism. And souvenirs of sexism may chafe: in "Since Mother Goes to Movie Shows," the hungry, crying baby wants someone to make dinner "But that's not a job for males"; and what but suffer can you do if you're a gal out for the too-long night on the town on a budget-watching, inattentive guy? Plead petulantly in a whiny character voice "If That's Your Idea of a Wonderful Time (Take Me Home"). This last one is a 1914 character number by Irving Berlin and the unhappy female is voiced by Ada Jones, not unlike a cartoon character sound reminiscent of Olive Oyl or Betty Boop on a bad day (or, rather, bad date).

Besides Broadway legend Berlin, quite a few writers' names will ring at least a distant bell to the aficionado of tunesmiths who contributed to musical theatre productions, such as Harry B. Smith, who wrote for Ziegfeld's legendary extravaganzas, and active (if not well remembered) craftsmen like Neil Moret and Albert Gumble, who wrote a show about a guy with the charming name of Mr. Moneypenny. In fact, out of curiosity, I looked up every songwriter's name in the big index of musical theatre songs put together by a man also responsible for these Harbinger packages, Ken Bloom, and found more often than not that these folks contributed multiple times to what was heard on stages of yore.

Stylizations and sounds of yore are present galore: There are rolled r's here, a pinched vocal sound there, arch characterization in the narration of a no-so-thickened plot, and, of course, language choices that date as poorly as the poor woman in the Irving Berlin song: references to spooning, calling females maids or girlies, terms like "raise the dickens" and "she's a peach" (that's a good thing, by the way). Call them aural snapshots of times gone by; if they sounded as if they were written yesterday, there would be little point in the excavation, right? It's all an enlightening and often refreshing time warp provided by the real deal of significant samples. It's the name-dropping that most specifically ties us to the era, as quite a few lyrics reference stars of the day: daydreaming dishwashing drudge subject of the song "Come Out of the Kitchen, Mary Ann" longs to be among the references Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Pickford is serenaded directly in "Dear Daddy Long Legs," published the same week her movie title referenced premiered and all four stars are also among the many mentioned as dancing "At the Moving Picture Ball," a deliciously delivered version, again courtesy of Billy Murray. And the ubiquitous Little Tramp and his trademark shuffling gait are separately the object of affection in two other titles, which are among the highlights and quite accessible: "Those Charlie Chaplin Feet" and "They All Do the Charlie Chaplin Walk." One of Chaplin's own instrumental compositions is included for good measure, as a tip of the bowler hat: "The Peace Patrol," a pleasant dalliance, performed by the Metropolitan Military Band.

The entertainingly eclectic package is complemented not just by the interesting tidbits about the times and titles, but several photos of old movie palaces (mostly in black and white, like the films celebrated). Note that this is mainly a collection of commentaries on films as a not-so-passing fad, the activity of going to them, and how they affected people, but there are samples of music actually played in releases of the day, or to promote them (such as the worshipful marketing of "Zudora," well worth one's hard-earned ten cents, you'd be convinced ("I dream of you/ And ev'ry time, dear/ I have a dime, dear,/I spend it for a glimpse of Zudora"). The collection was originally put together a dozen years ago this month for a silent film festival in Italy. Grazie to this record label's chiefs, Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman, for not letting it be silent for the rest of us. Pass the popcorn.

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