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(Wildflower Records 1306 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/30/2005)
Art reflects life, and it's often the case that some of the most interesting art comes from people who have led complicated lives. It's often said that you have to suffer to sing the blues. That may or may not be true, but this week, we have a distinctive singer-songwriter who has an interesting life story which is reflected in her music, but perhaps not exactly as one might expect. Zöe Lewis has just released her fifth album, called Small Is Tremendous and it features a sound that it both distinctive and very appealing.
Zöe Lewis was born in England, growing up in a small village on the south coast called Rottingdean. She started on piano at age seven, and began performing in the mid-1980s as part of a ten-piece band Latin band in London called Avanti, where she played keyboards. She went solo in 1986 and began performing cabaret-style jazz standards from the Tin Pan Alley era in pubs in London and then worked in South America and the Caribbean. She moved to the US in 1990 and settled in Provincetown on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, but has toured all over the world, and played on cruise ships. Some of that experience goes into the songs on new CD. She has also written a musical for children called "Pests," and the kind of positive, appealing sound of music suitable for kids also percolates through Small is Tremendous. Indeed there are some songs on the CD that could well be used for children's concerts. She also does concerts in which she encourages the audience, which presumably also includes children, to make music with everyday and found objects like keys. But there are also songs on the new CD whose subject matter is a lot more grown-up. She is a gifted songwriter, able to come up with some of those great lyric lines that stay with you, and as a performer, even her sadder songs cast a kind of musically sunny disposition, with pleasing acoustic sound. She includes such instruments as accordion, trombone, cello, and notably, the recorder, the wooden whistle-like instrument, played by Roxanne Layton, who is a part of the popular instrumental group Mannheim Steamroller. Stylistically, Ms. Lewis' experience singing old jazz standards in pubs definitely shows its influence.
This is an interesting, geographically diffuse recording, with parts taped in Massachusetts, Seattle, and Austin, Texas, presumably where the various guest players were to be found. There's also one track recorded live in Kansas. The musicians include some of the members of her touring group The Rubber Band. Ms. Lewis herself is heard on piano, guitar, and ukulele on one track.
The CD gets under way with the title piece, Small Is Tremendous, which sounds as if it could be a children's song, though it offers a kind of social commentary. The accordion and trombone evoke Louisiana, while she sings in a kind of working-class British accent. <<>>
A song that arose from her experience touring in exotic places is Breakfast to Bangkok. Her biography says that Mr. Lewis once performed with an elephant orchestra in Thailand. Musically the song takes on a kind of cabaret sound. The result is both clever and appealing. <<>>
Another composition that came out of her touring is Walter Thompson, an apparently real figure who was a piano player and crooner on a cruise ship, who despite the rather sunny mood of the song, comes to a sad self-inflicted end. She makes a thank-you to Thompson in her CD booklet notes. <<>>
Banana Moon is another appealing track, a bossa-nova influenced love song. It's an interesting lyrical mix of childlike images and romance. <<>> Roxanne Layton gets a featured solo on her recorder. <<>>
There is another connection with entertainment for children on the CD in the song Solitude, whose lyrics are taken from a poem by Winnie the Pooh author by A.A. Milne. But Ms. Lewis turns it into a kind musical soliloquy, with very nice results. <<>>
Ms. Lewis' experience in South America no doubt inspired the song Gringo! which describes a scene in a crowded bus with a suitable Latin American beat. <<>>
Ms. Lewis pens her own Tin Pan Alley style novelty song for the CD. It's called Eyelashes, and it's full of lyrical cleverness, served up with just the right amount of swing. <<>>
Decidedly not a children's song is Snow White, performed live and solo. It's based on the experience of a friend who worked at Disney World, and tells of the darker side of the Magic Kingdom. <<>>
Zöe Lewis' new CD Small Is Tremendous is a gem of an album that's difficult to categorize. On its surface it could be taken for children's music, and indeed a fair number of songs on the CD could find an audience among kids and their parents looking for children's music that's not dumbed down. But there are other songs, such as Snow White that are definitely more for the grown-ups. I am reminded of Billy Jonas, another performer who often plays to children's audiences, who is a brilliant and clever songwriter also creating music for post adolescent audiences. Ms. Lewis' music is also lyrically adroit and musically eclectic but classy.
My accolades for the recording also extend to the audio quality, which has very good clarity, warmth, and a respectable dynamic range.
Zöe Lewis is hard to pin down musically. And that is perhaps understandable given her interesting and diverse musical background. But to any fan of creative singer-songwriters, coming across her music for the first time is a most enjoyable discovery. And Small Is Tremedous is a great way get to know Ms. Lewis.
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