Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: Of Pregnancy and the Art of Singing (or reverse that), a Halo on the Floor and Words to Live By

Anne Heaton: Honeycomb (Spill)

Elizabeth Shepherd: Rewind (Linus Entertainment)

By Brian Arsenault

Fertility is in the air around me. One of my sons and his wife just welcomed little Liam and now my oldest and his wife are expecting. Then two albums show up nearly together wherein the artist has been greatly affected by her pregnancy.

Anne Heaton says of her work on Honeycomb that “my daughter’s feet were in my ribcage.”  She says her singing dropped several notes.

Similarly, Elizabeth Shepherd wrote on the liner notes to Rewind that her developing daughter’s “back would press against my lungs and rib cage as I sang. . .” She says that little body shaped her phrasing.

Well, no guy can recommend this, probably without risking wrath, but pregnancy seems to have had a positive effect. Both albums shimmer with life and striking energy.

Anne Heaton

Elizabeth Shepherd

Honeycomb, the CD fancily but inexplicably packaged with creepy pictures, is also packed with extraordinary harmonies throughout.  Heaton employs a bunch of backup singers, including herself, to wondrous effect.  The harmonic choruses on several songs may be the best parts of the album.

Shepherd bends some classic jazz tunes with a sense of Jobim and all that bossa nova stuff we call Latin Jazz for lack of a better name. And we must have our categories, or else critics might have to think independently.

But categories are tough in both these cases as Heaton borders on the eccentric in her compositions and sometimes arrangements.

Almost as uniquely, Shepherd unstandardizes some of the great standards, making then new without violating their integrity.

The title song of Heaton’s Honeycomb is pleasing, like literate up tempo country (there is such a thing, you know, sometimes) with all kinds of interesting changes, harmonies and counterpoint singing.  “Watching You Win” is an ode to “winning,” sort of like Conrad’s novel is an ode to Victory.  It’s in the eye of the beholder.

And in “Viva la Vida” she brings an understanding of life’s changeability that soars somewhere above Coldplay’s hit version.

I’m not real good with New Age stuff so the Eastern mystic poetry should probably be commented on by someone more sympathetic.  But Heaton’s rendition of the “Prayer of St. Francis” could win back sinners to the one true faith. Almost.

Shepherd opens with Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” which was a tough test for me, as I recently reviewed Cheryl Bentyne’s remarkable album, Let’s Misbehave, which begins with the same tune. No disappointment, though, as Shepherd puts her own Latin tempo spin on it and also contributes her Wurlitzer playing.

Poinciana keeps the echoes of South America resonating. “. . . perfume fills the air.” Yeah.

To tackle Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” in a straight up jazz way is always brave. Singers can get lost in it. But Heaton does it as a duet with Denzak Sinclaire and they pull it off. But only with an under three minute version.  Still, they only sink a little and find their way out.

Only complaint, please, please everyone stop recording “Feeling Good” even if you think you have a new take on it, which she sort of does. But all is forgiven on “When You Are Near” which is superb; truly sultry signing by Shepherd with an able assist from Colin Kingsmore’s drumming and Kevin Turcotte’s trumpet.

Both CDs are tapped into creative creation and both babies are girls, by the way.

******          ******          ******

 A Broken Vow

Empress Hotel: Heavy Halo (Park the Van)

I recently pledged to myself that I was no longer going to write reviews of any albums I didn’t like or at least respect.  I was going to commit myself to the classic role of critic; to  hopefully expand the listener’s appreciation and understanding of the work at hand.  But, come on, some stuff is so bad you just have to be a warning light.

Empress Hotel claims to be inspired by one hit acts of the past as well as artists as significant as Prince and Roxy Music. Well, there’s a reason most one hit bands are exactly that; they disappear after a single hit because they largely stink. And nothing on Heavy Halo reminds me of the aforementioned Prince and Roxy.

Rather, think Abba, Wham, Flock of Seagulls, the worst of Human League (was there a best?) and that famed lyric:  “Yummy yummy yummy, I got love in my tummy.” As Kath said, kind of retro.  80s awful. Any era awful.

This album is so bad I got to thinking maybe it’s a put on.  First song, “Mach Bach,” I thought what the hell is this? Second song, also the album’s title, I thought this is so odd.

It got worse from there.  Or I’m so unsophisticated I just don’t get it.  Chances are you won’t either.

******          ******          ******

Best Movie Line in a Long Time

So I’m watching the end of this film, still don’t know the title, with the wonderful actor Brian Cox and his character has lost his dog in an ugly way. A woman, maybe his daughter, brings him a plump little mixed shepherd puppy and he tries to refuse it saying:

“But I’m old.”

And she says:

“Just give her the time you have. She’ll do the same.”

He keeps it.

******          ******          ******

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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