Franklin Bruno: A Cat May Look At A Queen , Jenny Toomey: Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs

Franklin Bruno
A Cat May Look At A Queen
Absolutely Kosher

Jenny Toomey
Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs
of Franklin Bruno
Misra

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I'm not sure, but I'll bet Franklin Bruno is the first artist to use the word fusillade in a pop song. The leader of indie-rock welterweights Nothing Painted Blue, Bruno is also earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at UCLA, so when he fires fusillades of urbane wit and indulges his sesquipedalian streak, you can assume he's not so much putting on airs as being to his own self true.

Which isn't always a good thing. The song title "Dossier" hints at one of the flaws of A Cat May Look at a Queen: a weakness for lending Flaubertian detail to impossibly dull stories. For example, the moving-day epic "Bulk Removal Truck" drags its circular melody out for six minutiae-filled minutes about cleaning the freezer and removing Post-it notes, all to make the tiny point that (eureka!) things change.

But save for three or four clunkers, the writing on Bruno's third solo CD is top-drawer pop formalism with as much heart as mind, and Bruno's best melodies--somewhere between Stephen Sondheim and Stephin Merritt--are as artful as they are crafty. While the album glances at Tom T. Hall and Neil Young, its home seems to be an off-Broadway cabaret. Bruno plays a passage from Rhapsody in Blue and dedicates a song to Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart, whose melancholy romanticism and playful rhymes have clearly provided a model. Like Cole Porter, Hart didn't shy from atypical pairings such as "trousseau" and "Robinson Crusoe," a cheekiness Bruno mimics when he sings, "You were yin to my yang/You were Sturm to my Drang."

The catch is that Bruno isn't much of a singer. At its best, his narrow-ranging nasality recalls Loudon Wainwright; at its worst, Tom Lehrer. Pleasant timbre and pitch control aren't really essential for rock singers, but Bruno often writes beyond his vocal abilities, so that even as you admire his songs, you can't help wondering what they'd sound like sung by one of the real-deal torch singers Bruno can't hold a candle to.

Like, say, Julie London. Or Julie London crossed with Patsy Cline and Scrawl's Marcy Mays--which is about the sound that former Tsunami leader Jenny Toomey hits on her new album, Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno. The album is a kind of indie-rock Nilsson Sings Newman, and a better introduction to Bruno's songs than his own albums.

Toomey's dusky, slightly twangy alto brings out the full breadth of Bruno's American Songbook-informed melodies and she interprets his literate lyrics with aplomb. Backed by a tasteful band highlighted by Bruno and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, Toomey sings a set of new and old Bruno numbers that touch on Brill Building pop, bossa nova, mariachi, Sinatra swing, and Chet Baker moodiness, but are rarely mere genre exercises. On songs such as "Unionbusting," cleverness is the whole of the lyrical law. But it's a virtuoso cleverness, and lushly tuneful. Torch songs such as "Just Because It's Dying," "Pointless Triangle," and "Only a Monster" boast similarly striking melodies, as does the album's lone rocker, "Every Little Bit Hurts" (not the Gladys Knight tune--better!).

Tempting proves that specialization was a key to the success of the Golden Age Broadway Bruno so admires. Cole Porter wasn't a bad singer, but he was no Ethel Merman, and he knew it. Okay, so now that Jenny Toomey has the ball rolling on covering the Bruno songbook, can somebody get Bruno in touch with Michael Feinstein?

 
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