Googol Press, 1998
Dream with Me by Paige O'Hara
Sometimes one comes across two recordings with little in common but equal and opposite foibles--a musical Jack and Mrs. Sprat. In this case, the Jack analog--Googol On!--doesn't miss a trick. It's the first recording from Googol Press, which, according to founders Scott Johnson and Rob Babcock, "produces music and books that inspire and encourage people to take an active and conscious role in creating the life they choose." Available in CD and cassette, Googol On! includes fifteen songs, followed by fourteen accompaniment-only versions for singing along. One of the songs--"The Trouble with Grownups,"--is labeled "For Kids Only," while "Goodnight Mom, Goodnight Dad" is a lullaby for children to sing to their parents.
Amid all these big-hearted ideas, it seems downright grumpy to report that the songs themselves are disappointing.
Robert Berry's robust arrangements are great, featuring a big sound palette of mostly acoustic instruments. Despite the fact that he plays all the instruments himself--with successive overdubs instead of a band--the performances have a freshness, leading you to believe it's a band of musicians performing together.
Johnson's melodies, however, are unremarkable, and his lyrics frequently awkward. Worse, they tend to be emotionally manipulative. In "I Love You Googolplex," Johnson's little girl comes home from school having learned about the largest written number in mathematics, and announces, "Daddy, I love you googolplex," to which the singer replies, "after my heart broke right in two,/and after my eyes welled up on cue." With a boogie beat and an arch, Dean Martin-esque bon-vivant delivery, the effect is strangely incongruous.
"The Northern Lights are magical as they dance across the sky/The sunset on the ocean is a feast for any eyes/But of all the wonders anywhere, these are beyond compare: babies and butterflies." Johnson takes it for granted that we know why--but if that were the case, why the song?
"Rockabye Love"--written for his daughter in utero--is a sweet song in a sentimental, ballady vein. It's also very much for grownups with children. "Conceived with the ease of a sparrow in flight" is not really the first line of a lullaby.
The lyric booklet features endearing pictures of songwriter Johnson's family (Googol Press's Web site--www.googolpress.com--accepts submissions of artwork for posting, and includes free downloadable sheet music for all the songs. And Johnson and Babcock invite "individuals and groups from all over the world to submit material for Googol 2000," an upcoming multimedia CD extravaganza. The whole thing gives the feeling of having joined a cool club).
Johnson and Babcock are evidently very earnest about what they're doing, and would undoubtedly be fine producers and promoters of other people's material. But in the end, good ideas don't replace lackluster music.
At the other extreme is Paige O'Hara's Dream with Me (Sony Music, $14.99-CD), a collection of songs more or less about dreams. In this case, good music is smothered by lackluster ideas.
There is fine material here, including the work of Jule Stein, Paul Williams, Harold Arlen, and Meredith Wilson, to name a few. Norman Geller, who arranged and performed all the accompaniments (another ensemble-free, overdub special) has an ample command of lounge-style piano playing, and has crafted reasonably convincing accounts of the standards of which the album is made up. But his lush, orchestral arrangements--especially telling on Johnny Mercer's "Dream"--don't shine through the bloodless synthesized sounds with which he realizes them, and the result is paradoxically overblown and underdone, like a sumptuous ball gown made of construction paper.
The largely adult nature of these mostly-Broadway songs cannot be disguised by saccharine overlays. Having a little girl read aloud a list of such benefits as "Angels and Rainbows" may or may not make Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings" more kid-friendly, but it does make it irritating.
O'Hara, best known as the voice of Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, never cuts loose with the voice that helped make the spunky heroine so enchanting. Her delivery is breathy and undistinguished, as though the producers didn't want to lose the elevator market.
The trouble is, O'Hara is a chanteuse in a field dominated by singer-songwriters. Perhaps because of her Disney associations, she may have been persuaded to make a children's album, but instead ended up doing a pale, scaled-down version of what she otherwise might have done for grownups. One wishes she could have applied the enthusiasm and imagination of Johnson and Babcock to a more varied selection from the masters of American songwriting.
Scott Robinson is a frequent contributor of music reviews for Minnesota Parent.
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