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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1570

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Spencer Day: Vagabond
by George Graham

(Concord 31317 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/26/2009)

Lately, we have been noting the number of CD releases by chanteuse style vocalists -- women with a kind of jazzy, romantic style, such as Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Madeleine Peyroux, and Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult, whose CD we reviewed last week. The male equivalent of the chanteuse is, I suppose, the crooner, though that tends to imply performers like Bing Crosby, about whom the term was more or less invented, along with the likes of Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. This week we have an example of a crooner with a more contemporary style based as much on rock and soul as it is on big band jazz: Spencer Day, whose new third CD is called Vagabond.

Spencer Day, like another contemporary crooner, Jamie Cullum, is a singer-songwriter pianist, rather than just a singer, and he writes first-rate material that's lyrically thoughtful and musically interesting. A native of Utah, he grew up in rural Arizona, raised by a single mother who was a music teacher and operatic soprano. Day credits her with being a large influence. But despite his mother's pedagogic presence, Spencer Day describes himself as largely self-taught. The current Los Angeles-area resident counts as his influences some of the great Tin Pan Alley-era composers like Gershwin and Cole Porter, as well as Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and Paul Simon. One can hear their influence, as well as some of the approach of soul and Gospel composers.

Day's music is an interesting hybrid in sound. There are rock and soul grooves, but rhythmically there are a few songs in waltz time or a 5/4 rhythm. There is a small group of string players, a quartet on most occasions, and at times they echo the approach used by the string arrangements in old rock, soul, and even doo-wop records of the past, but it does not sound too retro. Day plays some respectable acoustic piano, but it's not really the center of all the arrangements and there are some additional keyboards played by Ben Vonas, who co-produced the CD with Day. The rest of the regular band on the CD includes drummer Scott Amendola, from the Charlie Hunter Band, bassist Jon Evans from Tori Amos' band and guitarist Yair Evnine, a long-time musical colleague. There is a group of backing vocalists who are reminiscent in style to old soul recordings.

While Vagabond has a somewhat more contemporary sound, there are a few moments, especially when the string section comes in, that do hint at the crooners of old, and sometimes it gets a little over the top. But for the most part, this is a worthwhile singer-songwriter album by a guy who can get jazzy.

Leading off is a piece called Till You Come to Me, which in turn starts out with the strings, while the song has a rock beat. It's a kind of lost-love song that's an interesting stylistic pastiche. <<>>

A different facet of Day's style is shown on his song Someday, which brings in some of that soul influence, with hints of country music. <<>>

Everybody Knows (The Family Skeleton), is another interesting blend that hints at an old rock tune with an almost theatrical touch. <<>>

One of the most distinctive tracks on the CD is Weeping Willow which resembles the melody of an old folk song -- St. James Infirmiry -- but in a mostly 5-beat rhythm and an atmospheric sound with the string quartet featured prominently. The lyrics are also in the style of an old folk song. <<>>

The title track Vagabond is lyrically a first-person tale of a nomad. The nicely done song has a kind of theatrical quality. <<>>

The track called Joe is the more rock-oriented story of another vagabond -- a character either setting off on his own, or perhaps running away from his life. <<>>

Although Spencer Day largely avoids the lounge-singer aspect of the crooner genre, he does go in that direction on one track, I Got a Mind to Tell You. It's one instance where he does cross the line from absorbing the traditions to getting caught up in the schmaltz, especially with the hokey background vocalists. <<>>

The CD ends with one of its highlights, Better Way, a kind of soul-Gospel-influenced song with positive lyrics that is performed very tastefully. <<>>

Vagabond the new third CD by the young West Coast singer-songwriter and pianist Spencer Day is a pleasing recording that provides a kind of male version of the chanteuse style we have been hearing a lot of recently. Not surprisingly, Day often plays in jazz venues, and was part of Marian McPartland's 90th Birthday celebration at the Tanglewood festival. But for the most part, this CD is more rock and soul oriented. Sometimes the production is on the edge of going over the top with the frequent use of the strings and background vocalists, but with one or two exceptions, the CD is quite tasteful, and uses the musical resources effectively to highlight Day's worthwhile original songs.

For a sound quality grade, we'll give the CD close to an "A." The vocals and instrumentation are well-handled and the dynamic range -- the way the recording treats the differences between loud and soft, is a little better than average for a pop CD.

Spencer Day 's new recording is another great example of the diversity of the singer-songwriter genre.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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