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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Joyce Breach and William Roy
Love Is the Thing

We saw the recent Michael Jackson TV special and after enduring all the "excitement" that Jackson and his friends could offer, we've come to the conclusion he's definitely the king of something other than popular music. But it's not the lack of something fresh, new or enthralling that has been bugging us. It's not the memory of Liz Taylor, watching Jackson and his pals perform and acting like she'd just discovered butter for the first time. Or Jackson covering his face as he sang, we suppose to hide the fact that he'd forgotten the words and was singing to a prerecorded tape. Or maybe it's a new affectation. Or maybe he was catching falling things. No, the thing that we can't get out of our mind is that it reportedly cost 30 million dollars to record his latest album. We'll go out on a limb here and declare this insane. What could possibly be worth 30 million dollars?

Our guess is that no one spent 30 million dollars on the sessions that produced Love Is the Thing. Singer Joyce Breach and pianist William Roy and a couple of recording engineers are worth it, but we doubt their compensation was in the millions. And yet by almost any standard, Love Is the Thing is the better value, except maybe in art direction.

The voice of Joyce Breach is one of the most arresting things we've experienced in a long time. She's effortless without being lazy and the sound is beautiful without being syrupy. When she sings, it's hard not to take notice, even though her delivery is somewhat cool. Joyce Breach defines intimate. But the zinger is when she stops singing and the note still lingers gently in the air. It just makes us melt.

William Roy is a wonderful pianist and supportive throughout. Singer/pianist duet albums like this can be deadly. One starts to crave at least a pair of maracas to break things up. Love Is the Thing avoids tedium but we have come to start it on different track numbers to make sure we're receiving the full impact. If we have one suggestion, it would be to add a few more instruments here and there. We swear at a few points it seems as if there was an acoustic bass on a few numbers, but there is no credit so we suspect this is part of Roy's cleverness. Audrey Morris is another excellent singer in the classic style. She added John Frigo on violin for a few tracks on her excellent mostly singer/pianist Round About album and it makes all the difference in the world, both for the variety and the atypical violin as a solo instrument.

These are simple suggestions to top a very nice cake. Breach and Roy perform 18 swell tunes and not a tired, overdone standard is found in the bunch. Many of the songs are new to our ears and the classics that we did know are hardly overdone. Breach helps one to realize how truly great a song can be. Why Did I Choose You? from the movie The Yearling, comes to mind immediately. Anyone Can Whistle is a hard number to screw up but the intimate lyrics and catchy melody are perfect for Breach.

Of course few reviews here on MrLucky can completely escape our claws. Like many discs on the Audiophile label, the cover is just plain ugly. It's a watercolor that seems to be a test to see if one can paint using toes rather than fingers. And the art direction, although credited, is absent. There is no understanding of space, typesetting, color and the like. It doesn't affect the music but we don't want you to think twice when you rush out to buy this disc. The rewards are inside.

Too often we complain about singers with irritating affectations. Streisand's confusion that she is a Gospel singer, Maria Muldaur's insistence that she's a rocker and Mariah Carey's flights of fancy before establishing a melody all drive us nuts and make us want to scream out to these ladies, "Shut up and sing!" Joyce Breach does just that, and then some.

Barbra Streisand
Christmas Memories

Columbia CK 86203

Nancy Wilson
A Nancy Wilson Christmas

Telarc MCGJ1008

Two New Titles for the Holidays

Before accepting our advice on Christmas music, please bear in mind that it's a very rare day when we get excited about a new album of holiday treasures. Talented performers turn to mush and the limited number of songs to sing starts to drive us bonkers. We end up looking for more obscure tunes and kicky new arrangements of old chestnuts to keep us interested.

In the late 1960s, Barbra Streisand recorded a great album of mostly straightforward, gimmick-free Christmas music. She was singing consistently well in those days and A Christmas Album has been the album to beat artistically (and we assume commercially) in the Christmas music sweeps. Unfortunately, her new collection, Christmas Memories, doesn't come close to her previous attempts at holiday cheer.

Barbra Streisand is now just plain bland. From her neutral arrangements to her neutral make up to her neutral Donna Karan gown, Babs is not only "like buttah", she's as bland as "buttah". Her blandness must be the result of a lifetime of being the odd man out, finally finding her place in the sun with James Brolin, but visually and artistically the result is not very satisfying. One wants to paint her lips with some Chanel red, pinch her cheeks for some color and plop a big floppy bow on her head to give her some life. One also wants her to stop over-examining every word and note and just sing.

Streisand can not sing with the same reckless abandon that made her so exciting in the early years of her career. This is a very forgivable sin. The problem is that she hasn't learned how to sing within the limits of her mature voice. When she sings a good song in a key that she can handle, she's actually better than she ever was. On Christmas Memories, we'd have to say her recording of Ave Maria, Sondheim's I Remember and a contemporary carol, Christmas Lullaby are all almost worth the price of the entire CD. She can be that good. The rest of the album however, is so bland or bad that you question whether you really enjoyed the good cuts as much as you think you did.

Barbra Streisand is many things but she is not an improviser. When she attempts a Gospel or Jazz voice, she falls on her face, and in exactly the same way every time. She bends or changes the notes with no variation and it wasn't very good 10 years ago when she started doing this. It's even worse today.

Other than the few great tracks, one song sounds like the next and despite playing this CD quite a few times in the hope that it might grow on us, we find hard to tell the songs apart.

When Capitol Records still believed in music, they were reissuing lots of great chestnuts from their vaults and among the cleverest of their compilations were the Christmas collections. Nancy Wilson was a star player and her recording, All That I Want for Christmas was sexy and new and it seemed a shame not to have an entire album by Wilson. Now, not a few years later, we have it. Nancy Wilson still has a great, distinctive voice but she suffers from being somewhat over stylized and never quite seems to be able to merge her Jazz aspirations and Adult Contemporary aesthetic. So it's a happy surprise that she pulls so many rabbits out of her hat on her new Christmas CD.

While nice, much of the album is pretty regular. A Bossa Nova version of White Christmas, a jazzy What Are You Doing New Year's Eve (that beats the pants of the Streisand version on her new disc) and Claudio Roditi's peppy trumpet solo on O Christmas Tree are all nice. It's the surprising gems like the neglected Sweet Little Jesus Boy, a moving All Through the Night and a slightly over-the-top but completely gorgeous rendition of O Holy Night that really make this one a winner. O Holy Night is one of those revelatory performances that makes you wonder how great Ms Wilson could be if she were challenged and given the chance.

There are no wrong turns on A Nancy Wilson Christmas, just different degrees of success. We admit to having a prejudice about the limits of Nancy Wilson's talents, as much as we've enjoyed her over the years, but now we're wondering if she deserves better than the neat little box we'd put her in.

Barbra Streisand:

Nancy Wilson:


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