Album Review: Justine Balmer – Simple Thing

From Coldplay to Claude Debussy, crossover soprano Justine Balmer’s debut album Simple Thing is a collection of songs that work well together

“Stick, or twist
The choice is yours”

With an intriguing bio that takes her from musicals to cruise ships to shopping channels, contemporary crossover soprano Justine Balmer’s debut album Simple Thing is 5 years in the making. The mix of pop, opera and classical is a seductive one and though the track-listing might seem diverse at first glance – Aerosmith next to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Coldplay rubbing shoulders with Claude Debussy – such is the serene force of Balmer’s voice that she really does make them all feel like they belong together here.

There’s a pleasing sense of balance too, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which genre Balmer prefers. A tender rendition of ‘Fix You’ with fellow crossover artists Blake, is as lushly beautiful as Fauré’s ‘In Paradisum’, the lightness of Dvořák’s ‘Song to the Moon’ matched by the simple purity of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ – you might not think you need another cover of the Keane track but it positively shimmers under the gorgeous treatment here. Continue reading “Album Review: Justine Balmer – Simple Thing”

Dreamy Album Reviews: Matthew Croke – Only Dreaming & Anna O’Byrne – Dream

A pair of dreamy album reviews with Matthew Croke’s Only Dreaming & Anna O’Byrne’s Dream

“Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date”

There’s only a few weeks left to catch Aladdin onstage in London so what better time to sample the debut album from Agrabah’s finest son. Matthew Croke’s Only Dreaming was released earlier this year and serves as an excellent showcase for his smoothly appealing voice. He’s a Disney leading man through and through and whether paying tribute to his current home in the sweetly lovely ‘Proud of Your Boy’, or urging us to ‘Go The Distance’ with Hercules, it’s hard to resist him. 

The emphasis in this collection is mainly on classic musicals, so we get ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story (though I’m not the biggest fan of the arrangement used here) and a gorgeous ‘Beautiful City’ from Godspell. There’s a nod to more modern musical theatre too, in the form of powerful versions of ‘Fight the Dragons’ from Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish and ‘This Is Not Over Yet’ from Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Top of the pops for me though is the stirring rendition of The Wiz’s ‘Home’ which more than justifies the whole album. Continue reading “Dreamy Album Reviews: Matthew Croke – Only Dreaming & Anna O’Byrne – Dream”

Album Review: Joanna Forest – The Rhythm of Life

Classical-crossover artist Joanna Forest takes us through a day in the life of a child with her enchanting new album The Rhythm of Life

“Wave goodbye to cares of the day”

After becoming the first independent artist to go straight to Number 1 in the Official Classical Album Charts with a debut album The Rhythm of Life is classical-crossover soprano Joanna Forest’s follow-up record. And it takes the form of a concept album, taking us on a journey through the day in the life of a child, pulling together songs from a wide range of sources to remind us of how uplifting music can be, no matter our age.

As a theatre nerd, my eye was instantly drawn to the musical tracks and Sweet Charity’s ‘The Rhythm of Life’ is an unexpected success as it brims with irrepressible energy – a fascinating and urgent orchestral arrangement is bolstered with charismatic backing vocals and choirs and the whole production builds layer upon layer to become something really interesting and unlike any version you’d seen on a theatre stage. Continue reading “Album Review: Joanna Forest – The Rhythm of Life”

Album Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter (2019 Studio Cast Recording)

Webborn and Finn’s cracking new musical The Clockmaker’s Daughter receives a delectable Cast Recording treatment that features the likes of Ramin Karimloo, Hannah Waddingham, Christine Allado and Fra Fee

“Come gather round!
Come gather young and old
Tall and small…
Come gather all!”

I was a huge fan of Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn’s musical The Clockmaker’s Daughter when it premiered at the Landor back in 2015, and loved getting to revisit the show when Trinity Laban’s final year students mounted the show a year later. So news of a cast recording was excitedly received in the Clowns household, especially once the company was revealed, featuring the likes of Ramin Karimloo, Hannah Waddingham, Christine Allado and Fra Fee. 

And with those stalwart supporters of new musical theatre Auburn Jam at the helm (Joe Davison producing) and David Ball Productions executive producing, the album sounds like an absolute dream. The show describes itself as “a musical faerytale” and the richness of the score reflects the considerable folk heritage of the British Isles, utilising Celtic influences as it is set in the fictional Irish village of Spindlewood but widening out its focus to produce something joyously universal. Continue reading “Album Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter (2019 Studio Cast Recording)”

Album Review: Sheridan Smith – A Northern Soul

If you’re looking for a last minute Christmas gift, you could do a lot worse than buy a loved one a bit of Sheridan Smith’s irresistible Northern Soul.  

“You bring the music and I’ll bring the songs and we’ll sing them”

The music industry being as it is, it is impressive that anyone can make a breakthrough impact with an album but Sheridan Smith managed just that last with with her debut record Sheridan – the second best selling UK female debut. That collection explored her theatrical background as much as her love of music but on her second album A Northern Soul, released last month, she presents nothing but original songs.

It’s a bold move but one that pays off handsomely with this confident and characterful suite of songs. From the bright and perky energy of the opening title track to the modern twist on the torch song that is ‘The One’ to the slinky purr of ‘Don’t Beg For Love’, there’s a soulful warmth that is hard to resist, recalling the likes of Dusty Springfield with its nostalgic sheen. But even with that, you never lose sight of Smith in the music, she puts herself first and foremost. Continue reading “Album Review: Sheridan Smith – A Northern Soul”

Album Review: Keala Settle – Chapter One

Building on the success of The Greatest Showman, Keala Settle releases her debut EP Chapter One

“When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long”

One of the breakout stars of runaway success film The Greatest Showman was rightly Keala Settle. As bearded lady Lettie Lutz, her rendition of the anthemic ‘This Is Me’ provided a real standout moment and it was no surprise to see the song be nominated for an Academy Award and to win a Golden Globe.

But to Broadway nerds, she’s no newbie. A Tony nominee (for Hands on a Hardbody), she shone in the original cast of Waitress and so you can certainly say she has paid her dues. And now Settle is taking the opportunity to release music with the EP Chapter One, which features four self-penned original songs and a cover for good measure. Continue reading “Album Review: Keala Settle – Chapter One”

Album Review: The Grinning Man (2018 London Cast Live Recording)

I thoroughly enjoy getting to revisit the dark delights of new British musical The Grinning Man

“Laughter is the best medicine”

I loved The Grinning Man in both its incarnations – from Bristol’s Old Vic to the West End – and so I was most pleased to hear that it would be immortalised in vinyl, or whatever the digital equivalent is… A new British musical (book by Carl Grose, music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, lyrics by all three plus Tom Morris) is always a thing to cherish, even when it is a queerly dark a thing as this. 

It’s a live recording which has its pros and cons. Personally, I like hearing the response of a live audience, particularly in response to the devilishly dark humour of Julian Bleach’s Barkilphedro. And the raw passion you hear in the voices of Louis Maskell and Sanne den Besten as tragic lovers Grinpayne and Dea feels all the more urgent for not having that studio polish to rub off some of the more emotional edges. Continue reading “Album Review: The Grinning Man (2018 London Cast Live Recording)”

Album Review: My Fair Lady (2018 Broadway Cast Recording)

I succumb to the charms of My Fair Lady once again with this 2018 Broadway Cast Recording

“I’ll be off a second later and go straight to the theatre”

I wasn’t expecting to like this 2018 Broadway Cast Recording of My Fair Lady half as much as I did. Rumblings of discontent about Lauren Ambrose’s casting as Eliza stuck in my mind, as did the unlikeliness of Harry Hadden-Paton being her Henry Higgins, and who wants American versions of English accents? (I’m sure they feel the same!)

But there’s something rather delicious about this recording that makes it really shine. It helps of course to have a score and lyrics as gloriously evergreen as Lerner and Loewe’s, MD Ted Sperling’s treatment of the original orchestrations making them feel as fresh as a cockney sparrer, and his orchestra sound like a dream. – you really could listen to them all night.  Continue reading “Album Review: My Fair Lady (2018 Broadway Cast Recording)”

Album Review: Summer – The Donna Summer Musical (2018 Broadway Cast Recording)

Is there a market for cast recordings from uninspired jukebox musicals. On Summer – The Donna Summer Musical’s evidence, I find it hard to think so.

“Enough is enough is enough is enough”

Yeesh. Summer – The Donna Summer Musical may have wasted no time in releasing a cast album but it really does point up some of the problems with the market’s increasingly reliance on jukebox musicals. As good as the performances by the likes of LaChanze and Ariana DeBose are and make no mistake, they are two sensational singers who fully deserve their Tony nominations, who is a record like this really aimed at?

It’s no great leap to suggest that fans of Donna Summer will always turn to her albums. For there’s nothing here in the vocal arrangements or the instrumentation that actually elevates it above and beyond a conventional covers album. There’s no narrative through-thread that can be gleaned from the sequencing, no startling insight that makes you reconsider the music anew, it all feels – sadly – rather pointless. Continue reading “Album Review: Summer – The Donna Summer Musical (2018 Broadway Cast Recording)”

Album Review: Natasha Barnes – Real

Natasha Barnes really impresses with debut album Real, a shining example of contemporary pop done well

“Leave me with some kind of proof it’s not a dream”

The world of musical theatre is no stranger to the talents of Natasha Barnes, her story is such a lesson who would ever underestimate an understudy. And as is often the case following such stage success, the announcement of a debut album was not too far behind. What might surprise you though is that Real is no skip through your usual musical theatre standards, it is a seriously impressive contemporary pop.

A mixture of original songs and covers that suggest a fascinatingly diverse record collection (Paramore to Motown group Porgy and the Monarchs to Northern Soul’s Towanda Barnes), the overall vibe emerges as something relaxed and retro – a chilled out Paloma Faith if you need a more direct comparison. You really feel her influence on lead single ‘Supermodel’, irresistible in its driving groove.

Continue reading “Album Review: Natasha Barnes – Real”