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(Koch Records 9521 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/31/2004)
The cynic might argue that the reason there are so many artists reviving older styles is because the current music scene is so bad. That's only partially true -- it's the bad music that dominates the commercial media, while out there in relative obscurity, there are a lot of artists doing worthwhile, creative and innovative new music. Be that as it may, there seems to be ever more new music that is inspired by or recreates the old, from 1970s disco to 1960s psychedelic to 1950s rockabilly to 1940s swing and jump-band music. This retro scene includes younger artists adopting styles that pre-date them, as well as more mature artists like Rod Stewart and Boz Scaggs taking up older styles and songs as they find themselves outgrowing rock & roll.
This week we have a delightful new CD by a respected singer-songwriter associated with the new folk scene doing an album of new original songs in the style of Tin Pan Alley. It's Susan Werner, and her CD is called I Can't Be New.
Susan Werner is one of the genuine bright lights on the contemporary singer-songwriter scene. Born in Iowa and raised on a farm, she came to Philadelphia to attend Temple University and received a master's degree in classical music. After working a number of odd jobs, she increasingly turned her attention to the contemporary folk scene. She began releasing recordings in the early 1990s, and quickly starting drawing attention in the folk world. Over the course of about five previous albums, she has become, in my view, one of the finest singer-songwriters of the current or previous generations. She is one of the artists I am fond of pointing to to refute fellow aging Baby Boomer folk music fans grumble that they just don't make music like they used to.
Ms. Werner has been raising the bar for contemporary folk providing a new take on the old values of great, intelligent, literate often witty songs, with a nearly perfect voice. But for this album, Ms. Werner went back even further for her influences, to the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Cole Porter or Rogers & Hart. The normally outgoing and energetic performer decided to turn to a much more intimate style on I Can't Be New. She set out to emulate the great songs of the past, with their tuneful melodies, interesting structure, and lyrics that are full of subtlety and wit. The latter has been one of Ms. Werner's great strengths, but for this CD, she adopted a more old-fashioned, romantic style of lyric writing. And she managed to nail the musical composition style of the masters, with the kind of chord changes and harmonic colors that jazz musicians would love.
Speaking of jazz musicians, she is joined by several on this Boston-made recording, produced by Crit Harmon. They include acoustic bassist John Lockwood, saxophonist and clarinet specialist Billy Novick, keyboard man Brad Hatfield, who plays with the Boston Pops, along with drummer Dave Mattacks of veteran British band Fairport Convention. Ms. Werner is heard on both piano and guitar.
Ms. Werner says I Can't Be New is not aimed at jazz purists, pointing out that jazz fans seek out for new interpretations of standard songs. Instead, her new album is all new songs "done in an old way." She also describes the CD as "Carole King's Tapestry meets Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter Songbook."
While the backing musicians are quite tasteful and add a lot to the mood of the CD, it's Ms. Werner who is the real focus. Already known as a fine vocalist, she really outdoes herself on I Can't Be New. Her control is remarkable, she can impart an emotional range of slyness to regret with ease, and evokes the kind of romantic mood you can easily get lost in. She apparently studied the masters well in terms of her songwriting, with almost every song sounding as if it were a Tin Pan Alley standard. And in classic form, the songs are short, never overstaying their welcome. There are 13 songs on the CD in just over 40 minutes.
The album begins with its title piece I Can't Be New, which epitomizes the sound of the CD. The musical backing is in classic swing form, while the lyrics are both romantic and full of cleverness, reminiscent of Lorenz Hart of Rogers & Hart. <<>>
Capturing a mood of romance and melancholy is Late for the Dance. Ms. Werner's vocal is just superb. <<>>
Taking a vaguely Latin direction is the ballad called I'm Not Sure. Ms. Werner is quoted as saying that it was her secret hope that one of these songs would eventually become a popular standard. I would say that this song stands as good a chance as any. The song has it all: a melancholy mood, romantic lyrics that nevertheless evoke ambivalence, and another superb vocal performance by Ms. Werner. <<>>
Another masterful set of lyrics comes on Much at All, which goes on about how the well protagonist says she can get along without her former lover, but not really. Eugene Friesen of the Paul Winter Consort appears on cello. <<>>
Adding an interesting touch is the Dobro on the song Tall Drink of Water. It's not an instrument one often hears in the context of a jazz standard. But it works well, and it's another great song in the classic tradition. <<>>
Another gem is Let's Regret This in Advance. The clever lyrics start with an old fashioned introductory verse that was a feature of most Tin Pan Alley-era songs... <<>> ...before the main lyrics about having the guilty feeling before a one-night stand. A pair of ukuleles evoke an even older sound. <<>>
A song called Philanthropy has perhaps the most optimistic straight out love-song lyrics, with an interesting percussion and vocal arrangement. Ms. Werner overdubbed several voices. <<>>
The CD ends with a short song called Maybe If I Sang Cole Porter, another song of romance, in this case, the pursuit of same. To give the recording a sound to evoke the era some record scratches were added. <<>>
Unlike ripening rockers looking for something more appropriate for their age, or younger artists searching for a distinctive sound, Susan Werner didn't have to do an album like I Can't Be New. For one of the bright lights on the folk-based singer-songwriter scene, with an active, engaging style, an album of original ballads in Tin Pan Alley style seems a little out of character, at least on paper. But the result is a very pleasant surprise. Ms. Werner applies her considerable abilities as a songwriter toward the decidedly retro sound to create some masterful songs with beautifully performed vocals. Given the context of the music, the instrumental accompaniment invites comparison with those given the great jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald. In that respect, the backing band falls a little short of the best, but it's still quite respectable.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The subtleties of Ms. Werner's vocals are generally captured well, and the sound of the mostly acoustic instrumentation has a degree of warmth. One disappointment is the use of a fake synthesizer piano on a couple of tracks, rather than a real grand piano, and there is my usual complaint about the use of too much volume compression, undermining somewhat the ebb and flow of the music.
There is a lot of retro music being released these days. But Susan Werner's I Can't Be New is one of the best, from its concept to its execution. It's a memorable album that reminds us about the timeless values of great songs, while giving us all new music.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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