Previously in these pages, I wrote wistfully of the prospects for a chanteuse in an era of singer-songwriters ("Dream On," March 1999). I am happy to report that Kim Scanlon has answered my call. Her Night Songs and Lullabies, recorded when Scanlon was pregnant with her son, is pregnant with musical interest. Scanlon has assembled some of the best brains in American songwriting: Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, James Taylor, Kurt Weill, Frank Loesser, Duke Ellington, Alan Lerner, and Hoagy Carmichael among them. There are a few beloved standards like Mancini's "Moon River," but most of the songs are lesser-known siblings of their creators' more famous offspring. Their rediscovery is fortunate. James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes" is particularly lovely, and gets an especially haunting and poignant treatment, while Scanlon does Ellington's instrumental "Warm Valley" as a soulful vocalese. Harold Arlen's "Hit the Road to Dreamland" is a knocked-out Rat Pack-era ode to after-hours giddiness, while Livingston and Maggie Taylor's "Pajamas" will make parents chuckle with recognition at its skittish, last-romp-around-the-house-before-bedtime energy.
The familiar tunes are treated in an imaginative way that makes them seem new or, rather, like old friends just returned from a rejuvenating vacation. "Moon River" gets two acoustic guitars lavished on it, a cascade of ringing notes that evokes the flowing water. And Scanlon revitalizes Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by restoring the all-but-lost opening verse, then delivering the song with a spare guitar-and-bass accompaniment whose transparency lets the sunlight of the song shine through.
The album was produced by one of the musicians (bassist Cary Black), and it shows: the mix is balanced and transparent, and the music-making honest and unpretentious. Black's arrangements are always true to the material, yet still searching for new possibilities. The relaxed, improvisational feel throughout the CD reveals a band whose members know how to listen to each other, and understand the give-and-take that makes a performance come alive. Scanlon's subtle delivery sounds simplistic at first, but later reveals itself to be in perfect service of the material--every word is clear and meaningful, every note just right, as though she'd written it herself. And the band's jazz-style spontaneity, in both the solos and the ensemble playing, is magical without being self-aggrandizing. This is not a flashy recording, and none of the musicianship draws attention to itself. But it will reward any attention given to it with warmth and friendliness. And though much of the tone is subdued, as befits post-storytime listening, it is never dull or perfunctory.
Sweet Dreams The O'Neill Brothers
Sweet Dreams is another story. An album of pseudo-Windham Hill piano renderings of familiar children's songs like "Rock a Bye Baby" could hardly be offensive--and it isn't, really. It's more like George Winston's atmospheric mood-music, with the occasional flashes of musical intellect taken out. The O'Neills--who have made a name for themselves by playing, appropriately, in shopping malls--have a style that consists of two, maybe three, techniques, applied equally and indiscriminately to every tune. It's a little like chocolate fondue; everything gets dunked into it, and comes up more or less the same, covered in cloyingly sweet, sticky goo. Each track consists of an extended and largely undifferentiated medley of tunes; within only a few minutes, I was able to predict exactly what musical trick the brothers were going to employ next with an accuracy that would impress any bookie.
The selections are not listed on the tray card, so if you don't happen to know the lovely Irish "Gartan Mother's Lullabye" (whose inclusion is one of the nicest things about this recording), you're out of luck. But then, this recording isn't really designed to be listened to, per se. The brothers were inspired to make it by their sister's need for an audio NyQuil for her daycare infants. And I must admit that I had a difficult time staying awake through all seven tracks myself. So if you're passing through an overstimulating shopping mall and want to have your pulse slowed a little, or if you want to put children (or grown-ups) to sleep, the O'Neills are for you. But don't try to actually listen to this stuff; it's dull as dry toast.