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Friday, May 26, 2017

Cover to Cover

Written by  Gregg Shapiro
Jake Xerxes Fussell Jake Xerxes Fussell

There is a lot to love about What in the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors) by Jake Xerxes Fussell. To begin with, the artwork on the cover and inside the gatefold CD is by the late artist Roger Brown. The two pieces – “Hunters Hunting an Autumnal Tapestry” and “A Seasonal Change” – are not only lovely to behold, but also complementary to the music within. Fussel drenches the eight songs, ranging from traditionals to obscure covers of tunes by Duke Ellington and others, and even one original, with his Southern syrup voice. An intimate and stripped down, yet rich and colorful album, Fussell gets things started with Ellington’s joyful “Jump for Joy,” in which he asks if we’ve seen “pastures groovy.” More questions follow on the traditional “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?” Fussell sets Welsh poet Idris Davies’ “Bells of Rhymney” to music and brings us to tears on “Furniture Man.” “Billy Button” and “Love Bonnie” are also not to be missed.

The double-disc concert set Story Songs (Palmetto) by grand diva Betty Buckley may not be her first live album, but it’s probably her most captivating. Described by Stephen Holden of The New York Times as “arguably the strongest cabaret of her career,” Buckley recorded two of her Story Songs show for this package. The first disc, recorded in Costa Mesa, California in 2016 opens with “You’ve Got to be Taught,” a classic showtune that has never been more relevant. The new Jason Robert Brown “Cassandra” could be a new feminist anthem. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Buckley’s rendition of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” – it’s life-changing. Buckley’s interpretive skills have the same impact on songs by Emmylou Harris (“Prayer in Open D”) and Peter Gabriel (“Don’t Give Up”). The second disc, recorded in New York City in 2015, features songs by Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird On A Wire”), Sting (“Practical Arrangement”), and others, as well as stories about Elaine Stritch, Howard DaSilva, and Stephen Bruton.

Grown-up child star and classical crossover act Jackie Evancho really stepped in it when she agreed to sing the National Anthem at Trump’s inauguration. She did so despite having a trans sister, Juliet. Remember, Trump is not and has never been a friend to the LGBTQ community. In the interim, Evancho offered up an array of superficial excuses. She also released a new album, the double-disc Two Hearts (Portrait). Evancho gets things rolling with modern operatic “Caruso,” written by the late, gay composer Lucio Dalla, and follows it Mascagni’s “Attesa.” Evancho continues to straddle the classical and pop world, with her renditions of Enya’s “May It Be,” the Bergmans / Hamlisch hit “The Way We Were,” and gay singer/songwriter Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” Further proof can be found on the second disc which features four originals co-written by Evancho, as well as “Apocalypse,” co-written by Jillette Johnson.

We can probably all agree that diva-in-her-own-right Deborah Cox (remember “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here”?) a former label-mate of the late Whitney Houston, deserves better than the lead role in the heinous and tacky U.K.-bred “musical” version of The Bodyguard, right? After all, she could have just recorded a Whitney tribute album, such as her new I Will Always Love You (Broadway) disc and saved herself the humiliation (and potential career devastation). Cox’s reading of “I’m Every Woman” (complete with the “Chaka Khan” calls and giggle) is respectful and respectable. She capably belts out “I Have Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You.” Cox’s take on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is passable, but the wrong-headed version of “The Greatest Love of All” is far from the greatest. These songs, and a couple of others included here, were not featured in the movie, but jammed into the musical for some preposterous reason. Cox would be wise to be careful or we may not always love her.

Over the years, classical musicians have gathered together to record their interpretations of songs by Queen, Bjork and Joy Division. Christopher O’Riley has recorded outstanding albums of the songs of Radiohead and Elliott Smith. On Vitamin String Quartet Performs Kanye West (Vitamin), VSQ applies violin, viola and cello to a dozen of West’s best-known tunes, including “Gold Digger,” “Jesus Walks,” “New Slaves,” “Stronger,” “Flashing Lights,” and “Touch The Sky.”

After more than 40 years, Vivian Reed is still probably best-known for her Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar. The title of Reed’s new album Standards and More (Vivianreed.com) tells you all you need to know. Reed has a knack for pairing up songs, as you can hear in her renditions of “My Funny Valentine / In A Sentimental Mood” and “Take the A Train / Sweet Georgia Brown.” She also has the ability to make familiar modern show tunes such as “Believe in Yourself” and “Losing My Mind” her own.

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