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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1691

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Anna Dagmar: Satellite
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/11/2012)

The singer-songwriter field has for a long time been more than just folkies strumming acoustic guitars, though that is still true the majority of time. There are the rockers, occasional jazz-influenced singer-songwriters, and from time to time, those who show a some classical influence, either by the complexion of their compositions, or by the use of orchestration. Recently there have been some worthy examples, including a couple of CDs we reviewed in this series within the past year, recordings by My Brightest Diamond, the musical project of Shara Worden, and Gabriel Kahan, who divides him time between the classical and pop worlds. This week, we have the newest recording by another singer-songwriter who shows her classical tendencies, in both compositional style and the occasional use of orchestral instruments. It's Anna Dagmar, whose new fourth CD is called Satellite.

Anna Dagmar was born in England, but grew up in the Boston area. She got into music at an early age and pursued it academically. She has a degree in jazz piano performance and Music Education from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. She studied classical piano with the chair of the piano department at Princeton. She began composing while in school. She says she looks for influence to composers whose music spans genres, from George Gershwin to Sufjan Stevens. So one can hear the diverse influences in her music. Her instrument is piano and that shapes her music. She draws on the often romantic or melancholy melodies of classical music, along with the harmonic complexity of jazz. She also has a wonderful, clear voice that adds to her appeal. In fact, her vocals are her best yet on the new CD.

Ms. Dagmar spends much of her time as a music teacher mostly in the New York area, but as she has been performing, she increasingly found receptive audiences among folk fans. Performing on the folk circuit and associating with other artists in the field for whom the lyrics are the point of emphasis, she began to think of her own style, which she readily admits was music first and most important, with fairly poetic lyrics to follow to go with the compositions. So she decided to be more open and direct with her words this time. Thus, on Satellite there are more obvious love songs, and a couple of interesting pieces that tell a story.

Ms. Dagmar works again works with producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Wittman, who produced her excellent 2009 album Let the Waves Come in Threes. He is known for his tasteful work with Patty Larkin and Jonatha Brooke. Guitarist Marc Shulman is another holdover from her last album. Guests include singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky on backing vocals and a string quartet, for which Ms. Dagmar wrote the arrangements. She also created an interesting treatment for an old pop standard tune which is included.

The relatively short 36-minute CD opens with its title track Satellite. It's autobiographical, about her mathematician father and spiritual mother. It's a definite highlight which embodies all the best qualities of the album -- the outstanding composing and arranging, the tasteful playing, and now on this release, the appealing story told by the lyrics. <<>>

A piece that evokes classical style melodies is So I Chased the Setting Sun. It's a beautiful, but melancholy-sounding love song very nicely performed with the addition of some woodwinds. I heard MS. Dagmar do an earlier version of this song when she performed solo on our Homegrown Music series at WVIA. The arrangement here is particularly nice. <<>>

A bit more upbeat in sound is a piece called When It Shows an interesting twist to the love song. The composition again shows Ms. Dagmar's interest in creating little unexpected musical direction changes. <<>>

A more straightforward love song is another tune that has a bit of a rhythmic groove to it, Company, but it's got a lot of the kind of complicated chord changes that would keep a jazz musician happy. <<>>

A track reminiscent of some of Ms Dagmar's earlier, classically influenced material, is Falling Star a pretty waltz with the string quartet and a guest appearance by Lucy Kaplansky. <<>>

Ms. Dagmar's inspiration by other artists in the folk world with whom she has been performing, to do lyrical storytelling comes most to fruition on the track called We Were Children, about a couple of kids caught up in a war. It's nicely done. <<>>

The old pop song that Ms. Dagmar covers on the album is Can't Help Falling In Love. The arrangement shows her jazz influence with it taking a rather different direction than the way one usually hears this song. <<>>

Taking a quite different direction, and indeed a considerable variation on the piano-based sound of the rest of the album is Down the Road with ukulele, Dobro and bass clarinet evoking an almost vaudeville mood. <<>>

Anna Dagmar's new CD Satellite is another outstanding recording from a fine singer-songwiter and arranger. She again brings in some of the classical influence she grew up with, and this time has added more narrative lyrics to her sophisticated musical blend. The result is very tasteful, thoroughly appealing and often evocative. If I were grading her musical compositions, I would give her an A plus. Her music is about as far as you can get in the style from three-chord folk.

I do mete out grades for audio quality, and I'll give the CD close to an "A." The recording is clean and unfettered by unnecessary studio effects. The dynamic range -- how the recording reproduces the loud and soft of the music -- could have been a bit wider, but it's a lot better than most current pop recordings.

It's nice that the singer-songwriter genre has grown to encompass as broad a range of influences as it has. Anna Dagmar represents the best of combining the lyrical approach of the folkie with the musical qualities of classical and jazz. And her new independent release Satellite is a real gem.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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