Thursday, September 29, 2011
Do You Have Any Female Vocals?: Halie Loren on CD
"Just say no to Diana Krall at audio shows."
I said this as a joke on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, and I took a little flak for it. Hey, what do you have against Mrs. Costello? She's awesome! I love her stuff!
Well, I'm always a sucker for a good old-fashioned backlash, and I have to admit that I've tired of hearing DK in every single friggin' room when I attend the audio trade shows. As an exhibitor at the recent AXPONA Show in New York City, I watched as two middle-aged gentlemen got up and left my room after they were told we didn't have any Diana Krall to play. What, no Diana? Youse guys suck! Finally, someone in our room fetched some Krall, and all was well in Audiophile Land. But I had to leave the room after a while. I just didn't get it.
I don't really dislike Diana Krall that much, and I may be overstating my case here. A couple of years ago I reviewed two of her ORG reissues on LP and I had to admit that the sound quality was utterly stupendous. She's a skilled pianist, she has good taste in music and she's downright beautiful. I hate to bring up the latter, but I suspect it's part of the reason why so many middle-aged men are smitten with her "musical" charms. I guess my main objection is her aloof, too-cool-for-school vibe which sometimes comes off as emotionally detached from the material. It's almost as if she's watching her Rolex as she's playing. She rushes through some of the songs as if she can't wait to get to the part where everyone applauds wildly. (This also reminds me of why I don't like Sarah MacLachlan's singing; if Krall sounds hurried, then Sarah sounds as if she's going to take a big giant nap as soon as she finishes the last note of the song.)
On a broader scale, female vocals are a necessity in the world of audiophiles. If they aren't asking for Krall, then they're asking for female vocals in general. They don't want to hear the rare Three Blind Mice LPs I have. They don't want to hear Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington play "Duke's Place." They want to hear Patricia Barber. Or Eva Cassidy. Or Jacintha. Or even (my God) Celine Dion. I mean, why not someone interesting like Holly Cole? Or how about Zooey Deschanel doing an amazing country-and-western cover of "I Should Have Known Better"? Or how about Halie Loren?
Halie who, you ask? That's my point. Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio sent me three of her CDs my way in the hopes that I would spread the word about her. Dan thinks she deserves to be better known, and when talks about music, I listen. As an unapologetic music snob, I find it hard to be impressed with other people's taste in music, but Dan seems to know what I'm going to like before I even like it. When I visited him in August, he played a rare and pristine pressing of the extended version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone' by the Temptations. It wouldn't have been my first choice for the evening, but by the time it was over I was hooked and I had to have it. I'm still looking for it. Damn, that was good.
All in all, Dan sent me three of her CDs: the 2001 live album Stages and the two studio albums They Oughta Write a Song (2008) and After Dark (2010). Dan also told me she has another album on the way. She also has a 2006 debut album titled Full Circle and a series of digital downloads called Summer Fruit. She hails from Eugene, Oregon, and she's been performing since she was ten. She's big in Japan, as they say, but she's still trying to make an equally strong impression here in the states. Dan is certainly doing his part to make that happen.
So what makes Halie Loren special? First of all, we have to get the standard female vocalist prerequisites out of the way. Yes, she's gorgeous. It shouldn't matter, but it's exceptionally nice to look at her CD covers while you're listening to her music. Second, her albums feature spectacular sound quality. My only caveat is the sound of the audience on the Stages CD: it sounds distant, detached and two-dimensional, which detracts from the overall immediacy of the performance. But I'm nitpicking here; deep down I don't really care if the applause sounds muted, even if it's so contained that it sounds like the laugh track on an old episode of M*A*S*H. As long as Halie and her band sounds great--and they do--that's what's important.
Most importantly, Halie stands out in the way she commits to the song. I read her press bio, which said something about her reputation of "knowing her way around a song," and I have to concur. She connects emotionally to each line in the same way Sinatra often did. You hear the feelings behind the words and you almost see her facial expressions as she breathes in and out between the verses. In other words, she's the anti-Krall, the polar opposite of aloof. There's something amazingly alive about that, and it's slightly intoxicating.
She also has superb tastes in not only the individual songs, but the entire album sequence. Who else would mix a slow, bluesy "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with a sultry standard such as "Cry Me a River"? How about a double feature of "La Vie en Rose" and "Ode to Billie Joe"? Or "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Summertime" (not to mention a lovely "Autumn Leaves")? As diverse as the songs are, she manages to make them fit together like puzzle pieces through the singular power of her emotional convictions. It's breathtaking and also breathtakingly sexy.
She also surrounds herself with stellar musicians. Matt Treder, who co-produces many of her albums with her, plays the piano with grace while matching his singer's penchant for directness and honesty. You'll also hear strong contributions from such musicians as Jim Ferguson and Mark Schneider (bass), Brian West (drums), Dale Bradley (cello), Chris Ward and Jack Jezzro (guitar) and many others.
I'm going to take these CDs with me to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a couple of weeks, and whenever someone asks "do you have any female vocals?" I'll have a definite answer. It won't be Mrs. Costello, either. Inwardly I'll yell "Death before Diana!" Outwardly I'll say, "How about some Halie Loren instead?"