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The Supreme Music Program
The Sweetheart Break-In
Supreme Music Program MMKB-1901 Pop / Vocals

What a weird and wonderful CD this is!

Megan Mullally (who plays Karen on TV's Will & Grace) has the makings of a great contemporary diva, in the best sense. She has the looks, the voice, the sense of humor and a real sense of drama. Her success is a little confusing, because in a world of Mariah Careys and Regis Philbins, it's odd that someone this talented makes much of a mark.

Mullally's voice is very appealing but she's an actress first, and then a singer. What she and her band, The Supreme Music Program, have done is create a modern version of cabaret, owing as much to Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull as Mabel Mercer. She has a knack for picking gorgeous melodies and even if she's straining the limits of her voice a bit (as in It Never Was You), she's effective and mesmerizing.

After a brief whistling introduction of Sigmund Romberg's Sweetheart, Mullally goes into a campy, confusing version of Ten Cents a Dance. For us, this is the one really weak moment on the album. It's done in a mock 1920s "vo-dee-oh-doat" voice and it's the closest thing to the Karen role she plays on Will & Grace. From here, the clever song cycle starts with Randy Newman's Marie (from his seminal Good Old Boys LP) and ends with Tom Waits' touching Johnsburg, Illinois. In between is a real roller coaster ride of emotions, often bordering on obsessive and maybe even madness. There's probably a story here but the plot is never made clear.

One of the cleverest numbers is the inane pseudo-folk song, Scarlet Ribbons. In case you're not familiar with it, on the surface the song is about a mother who hears her daughter pray for scarlet ribbons for her hair. Mater is in a tizzy because it's late and there's no place to buy her daughter this essential grooming aid. She frets all night and lo, just before dawn, the ribbons appear miraculously. Until now, popular singers like Jo Stafford or Patti Page have never questioned why Jesus would answer such a superficial prayer, but Mullally at first recounts the tale and then proceeds to go mad. First from grief at not being able to purchase the ribbons, and then from disbelief that the ribbons appeared on her daughter's pillow. It's completely over-the-top and if you're not listening to the lyrics, you'd just assume Mullally was singing in the shower. It works because the melody is actually pretty and even though Mullally is obviously acting, her tongue is not in her cheek. Precarious states of sanity are also apparent on I Remember Sky, Johanna, Surabaya Johnny and Are You Lonesome Tonight?, not to mention Ten Cents a Dance.

The minimalist arrangements and slow segues remind one of Tom Waits. Mullally's version of Ruby's Arms makes it clear why Holly Cole's Waits tribute, Temptation fails. Mullally sings the song straight while Cole takes a handful of Waits songs and tries to out-cool the master.

The band is tight and talented, moving effortlessly from salon music to blues to show tunes. As a pop record, the music occasionally takes a backseat to the drama, but as theater, it's a compelling 50 minutes and we find ourselves listening to it again and again.

Faith Prince
A Leap of Faith
DRG 91460 Vocals / Cabaret

 

Do you remember the story a few years ago about a woman who experienced a violent reaction to the sound of Entertainment Tonight-host Mary Hart's voice? Well, that's close to the reaction we have to the voice of Broadway star Faith Prince. She has a cute nasal little-girl sound for the most part. That's the good news. Her belting has a shrill metallic quality that is typical of what passes for a Broadway voice today. Combine this voice with an almost complete lack of sex appeal and you have one tedious recording.

Prince is most notable for her huge success in the revival of Guys and Dolls. With a strong script, we can possibly imagine her as comic. She has a "funny girl" personality but on this live recording, she just delivers her ample chat in a funny voice. She never approaches wit or humor.

We'll pass, thank you.

Freddy Cole
Merry-Go-Round
Telarc Jazz CD 83493 Jazz / Vocals

Poor Freddy Cole will always have to be introduced as Nat "King" Cole's brother. He must not mind it too much, as he followed Nat's lead by changing his last name from "Coles" to "Cole." He also followed Nat with a singing career. Sometimes Nat's ghost comes through loud and clear but it's not a creepy thing, like Julie Budd's interpretation of Barbra Streisand. It's a mellow familiar feeling and it makes you wonder what Nat would be sounding like today.

Once you get over the similarities, Freddy Cole is a fine singer in his own right. And like Nat, Freddy comes off as immediately likeable without a trace of showbiz schtick. He has a rich, warm voice and the tasteful arrangements allow him to tell a story while swinging gently.

Merry-Go-Round is a beautiful, romantic album by an old pro.

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