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The Graham Album Review #1796

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Morgan Treni: The Dreamer and Other Essays
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/3/2014)

Next to rock bands, probably the most common musical form in contemporary music, in terms of the number of album releases, is the singer-songwriter. There are still some quasi folkies making it on the pop charts, but most such releases, as numerous as they are, find fairly small audiences. In most cases, the bulk of their physical recordings are sold at performances, and once in a while, there will be an internet buzz which may give a boost to an emerging artist. There are not too many of us left in the real broadcasting world who give give much attention to folkies who are not household names -- or are not from at least 40 years ago. But we persist, and it's always nice to come across an interesting artist, mining the well-tapped artistic genre, and yet making something that is both novel musically and enjoyable.

This week we have such a record. It's the debut by Morgan Treni, and her CD is called The Dreamer and Other Essays.

Morgan Treni grew up in northern New Jersey near New York. Her father is Michael Treni, a jazz composer and arranger and former faculty member at the Berklee College of Music. Her bio said that she would often go to Broadway shows, and obviously developed an affinity to music, but her career in music was not certain. Her first instrument was trumpet, and for eighth grade, she went to New York Military Academy and got a scholarship for bugle. But she returned home to Ramsey, NJ, where she still lives, and became part of her high school marching band. She wanted to sing in the jazz band, but the band director required her to stay with the marching band if she wanted to sing with the jazz band. She went to Ohio Wesleyan University, starting as a trumpet major, but decided she wanted to get away from music and ended up majoring in "creative nonfiction writing."

After such jobs as working in a sporting goods store, which she enjoyed, she drifted back into music, and started putting those writing courses to work on songs, She continued to perform occasionally, both in Ohio and back home in New Jersey. She began to develop of coterie of fans who crowd-funded her debut CD. She writes that she "hired" her father to write arrangements for the record. His work definitely adds a lot of musical interest. Ms. Treni herself shows some jazz experience in her vocal style, with her excellent pitch and phrasing, and a downright appealing voice. Michael Treni took an interesting approach with the primary accompaniment being a string quartet. There's not much guitar and even less drums. Michael Treni plays some jazzy piano on two of the tunes, on this CD which was recorded partly in Ohio and partly in New Jersey.

Lyrically, the much of the material is written as if autobiographical, with a kind of ongoing theme of moving on, either by traveling or by breaking through in artistic expression. The fairly short 35-minute CD contains songs that are called Prologue and Epilogue, and they do provide musical and lyrical bookends.

The Prologue shows Ms. Treni's jazz cred, with the jazz-like arrangement with just voice and bass, plus a little percussion. The song is an expression of emergence, a kind "Hello world I'm coming, make room for me." The lyrics come off as a little self-centered, though it might be tongue in cheek. <<>>

The string quartet makes its appearance on the following and title track, The Dreamer. One can't help be reminded of the Beatles approach on Eleanor Rigby, though the lyrics are miles from there. It's very nicely done with Michael Treni's excellent arrangement, and Ms. Treni's vocal an excellent fit. Lyrically it's another of her musical musings, and with the song being true to its title. <<>>

With more of a jazz setting, featuring Michael Treni on piano, is a song called Acrylic W. Virginia. It's almost a kind of romantic torch song combined with road-song. <<>>

With both the jazz group and the string quartet is a track called Mr. Carroll, a reference to Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll. Michael Treni's arrangement takes a bit of a theatrical turn, and it turns out to be one of the highlights of the album. <<>>

The string quartet is also very effective on one of the more introspective songs, Chessboard, which is likewise an excellent example of father and daughter really working together well. <<>>

Traveling is a recurring theme on this album, and that is epitomized on the song appropriately called Open Road, again with the combination of the jazz group and the string quartet. <<>>

The only tune that could be considered anywhere near rock is a song called Delaware a reference to Delaware, Ohio, home of Ms. Treni's alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan. It's whimsical and and runs toward country-rock in sound, though compared to the rest of the album, it's rather lightweight. <<>>

The CD ends with its Epilogue which is accompanied by just an electric piano played by Kevin Patrick Sweeney, which really puts the spotlight on Ms. Treni's fine vocals It's a song of thanks and is only vaguely related to the opening Prologue track. <<>>

Morgan Treni's new debut album The Dreamer and Other Essays, is an impressive recording by a well-developed, literate singer-songwriter whose college major in writing comes through. Her growing up in a musical family with a composer-arranger father and her frequent exposure to jazz and theatrical music as a youth also comes into play, in the distinctive set of musical ingredients that make up this record. The prominent use of the string quartet and the really excellent arrangements by Ms. Treni's father Michael help to make this a real standout. All the songs are worthwhile, and the album has a healthy variety of sound and musical textures within its mostly acoustic context. She avoids most lyrical cliches as well. It's interesting to note that there seems to be a bit of a trend developing of singer-songwriters with string arrangements on their records, such as Gabriel Kahane, Linda Cortese and Anna Dagmar, all of whom we have reviewed in this series over the past couple of years.

Sonically, we'll give Dreamer and Other Essays a rare grade "A." The sound is clean. Ms. Tenri's vocal has a warm inviting sound, and the acoustic instruments are treated well. The dynamic range, while not at an audiophile level, is still better than today's typically heavily compressed records make everything loud all the time.

With all the thousands of singer-songwriter records out there in all kinds of styles, it's not easy to make a strong first impression. The genre does happen to be full of excellent artists who work in relative obscurity, or at least completely under the radar of the commercial media. Some develop over a period of time. Twenty-five-year-old Morgan Treni, has made an impressive showing on her debut album, which is rather rare, and done it with her father providing the arrangements, which is an even more infrequent event. It makes for rewarding listening.

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