I met Woody Lissauer back in the early 90s at Sowebo. His long blond hair flaying in the wind, a pearly white smile, and charming stage presence combined with amazing musical abilities made him stand out in the crowd of performers for me that night. I knew he had real talent and I liked him. We were introduced and hit it off immediately. We hung out at his place after the festival, talked for hours, and he showed me all the various instruments he knew how to play. I was incredibly impressed.
Hot on the stylish heels of her stylish New Destination EP, queer singer/songwriter Rachael Sage has released the full-length album Blue Roses (MPress), a definite career-high. The new direction hinted at in the four songs on the EP is fully realized on Blue Roses’ 13 tracks. Sage wisely included a pair of songs from the EP, “Misery’s Grace” and the marvelous “Wax,” on the new disc. Longtime fans will be happy to hear that Sage hasn’t abandoned her trademark keyboard work or her distinctive vocal style or phrasing, as you can plainly hear on “Happiness (Maddie’s Song).” What is most evident here is a more mature songwriting style, as is evident on “English Tea,” “Barbed Wire,” “Newspaper,” and the trans tune “Used To Be My Girl” (which is reminiscent of Shawn Colvin). The cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a duet with Judy Collins that closes the disc, is simply stunning.
One of Robin Williams’ last films before his untimely 2014 passing (let’s hope it’s better than The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), A Merry Friggin’ Christmas might be saved by the possibility of a shirtless Joel McHale. A Merry Friggin’ Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Lakeshore) has a few things going for it. It opens and closes with a pair of songs performed by Rufus Wainwright – “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the original “Christmas is for Kids.” The Belle Brigade, featuring out singer Barbara Gruska, performs the original “Going Home for Christmas.” Nice Jewish boy Ben Kweller rocks the house with his rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and draws on his Texas roots in the original “Try to Love (Joy to the World).” Other holiday highlights include “The Weather Outside” by Spence Shapeero, “Best Time of the Year” by Alex Rhodes and “More Than I Wished For” by FM Radio.
For his first holiday album, A Michael Feinstein Christmas (Concord), Great American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein doesn’t stray too far from his roots. Accompanies by acclaimed jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, Feinstein’s renditions of Christmas classics are sources of endless joy. The arrangements allow both Feinstein and Broadbent to shine like the lights on a Christmas tree. Sure, we know these songs, including “The Christmas Song,” “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” by heart, but Feinstein touches our hearts with these simple and pleasing renditions. Leave it to a nice, Jewish gay boy to refresh these timeworn classics in the way that Feinstein has.
Here’s an idea that probably looked good on paper. Have Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, tackle some songs that were hits for other modern music royalty on Sings The Great Diva Classics (RCA). Sounds good, right? Oh, but the execution! It’s enough to make the Queen of Hearts declare, “Off with her head!” Things go south, right from the start with Aretha proving she’s no Etta James (or Cyndi Lauper, for that matter) with her reading of “At Last.” “The Aretha Version” of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which interweaves “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” fares somewhat better, although Aretha’s approach eschews enunciation for vocal gymnastics. Franklin sounds like she’s trying to joust with Gladys Knight on “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the combination of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” is another case of a concept losing something in the translation. The luckiest people in the world are those who don’t listen to Aretha wend her way through “People” and nothing will ever compare to the butchery of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” performed in a finger-snapping jazzy rendition. Please don’t let the Snickers commercial that Franklin did in 2010 be the best of her 21st century work.
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