Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bland Ella: Starlit Hour Is A Poor Mix Of The Jazz Vocalist's Abilities

The Good: One or two interesting songs
The Bad: SHORT, Does not show off Fitzgerald's extensive range all that well, Musically bland
The Basics: With a more generic swing jazz sound and a lack of songs that show off Fitzgerald's true range, Starlit Hour is an album that may easily be passed by.

Usually, when I pick an Artist Of The Month, I have a fairly good idea of what I am getting into before I start. This is not to say that I am biased for or against the given artist, but I usually know something about the artist or their repertoire when I declare them my artist of the month. With my January Artist Of The Month, Ella Fitzgerald, I am discovering that she is one of the most compilated performers I have yet encountered. Her works show up on innumerable compilations and c.d.s. Having now listened to several of these, like That Old Black Magic (reviewed here!), I find myself able to discern between the values and the compilations that are less than extraordinary.

The compilation Starlit Hour by Laserlight is definitely one of the lesser compilations. While most of the Fitzgerald compilations try to show off Fitzgerald's incredible vocal range and ability, this one does not so much do that. As well, this Ella Fitzgerald album seems to be more dominated by the big band backing instrumentals, like on "Goin' And Getting It." The result is an experience that is hardly exciting and even less satisfying. The net result is an album more or less guaranteed to disappoint Ella Fitzgerald enthusiasts.

With only ten tracks, clocking out at an anemic 28:47, Starlit Hour is a poor showing of the works of Ella Fitzgerald. Instead of offering vocal or instrumental diversity, this collection is some of the most indistinct, bland songs that Ella Fitzgerald ever performed. It is also worth noting that Ella Fitzgerald is a performer on this album but actually has very little in the way of creative control over it. Instead, she sings lines written entirely by others, plays no instruments and was not involved in the album's production in any way.

But moreover, this collection does not even have the most exceptional vocal performances by Ella Fitzgerald. Opening with "Cryin' My Heart Out Over You," Fitzgerald barely emotes the emotions behind the lyrics. Similarly, "Lover Come Back To Me" is hardly as desirous as the lines imply it ought to be. This contradiction is somewhat ridiculous and weakens the sound of the album because it does not sound like Fitzgerald knows what she is singing. It is hard to do a happy, skippy beat jazz song about wanting your lover to come back. It sounds ridiculous. The lyrics are for a sultry, smoky song and Fitzgerald performs it like a big band number.

While I enjoyed "Mr. Paganini" for its musical storytelling, the songs does not fit as well on this album and it only seems to accent the weaknesses of the other tracks. What that song does have, though, is Ella Fitzgerald's amazing vocal range. None of the rest of the songs on the album have Ella Fitzgerald soaring to high notes from the low notes, then descending melodically until she gets back to where she - and the lyrics - want to be.

Jazz enthusiasts will also be a bit disappointed with the lack of Fitzgerald's jazz scatting on Starlit Hour. Instead, this album is thin on that and the vocals are much more literal. "Mr. Paganini" is one of the few songs that has any jazz scatting and while it is good, those hoping for more will be left wanting.

Starlit Hour is also a bit weak on the lyrical front. While a lot of vocal jazz is focused on the vocals, it is tough as a reviewer to not evaluate the lyrics and have some problems with them. Perhaps the best song on the album, "We Can't Go On This Way," still uses a number of obvious, singsong rhymes like "We can't go on this way, / Laughing at love, day after day, / I'm sincere, you're unfair, / We can't go on this way. / 'It's all in fun' you say, / After it's done, someone must pay, / Then there'll be, So much misery, / We can't go on this way." Fitzgerald has a great voice and to hear it reduced to lyrics that are hardly great in an enduring or clever way is disappointing.

The fanfares are repetitive and whomever arranged the album ought not have put "Sugar Blues" right after "We Can't Go On This Way" as their instrumentation is similar and after "Mr. Paganini," it is even more redundant. While the rhyme scheme works better, Fitzgerald's vocals neither express her range, her articulation or any real genuine emotion when she sings "Sugar blues / Everybody's singin' the sugar blues / The whole town's ringing / My lovin' man sweet as can be / But the doggone fools / Turned sour on me / I'm so unhappy / Feel so unhappy / I could lay me down a die / You could say what you choose / But I'm all confused / I got the sweet, sweet sugar blues" ("Sugar Blues"). The sound ultimately leaves the listener thinking Fitzgerald is just singing nonsense, that there isn't a condition or state she is in, she's just singing. In other words, her voice is full of sound, but it signifies little.

This is not the case on all of the songs. "Is There Someone Else" is a wonderful song about the natural questions in relationships and “Starlit Hour” - the song - is a wonderful jazz ballad that is sad and sultry. But the instrumental breaks on the album, even on "Is There Someone Else" seem too long and the mix of songs is a poor one.

In other words, even with limited experiences with Ella Fitzgerald and her works, Starlit Hour does not offer enough of what is worth listening to by Fitzgerald to inspire one to start with this album. There are better examples of songs and vocalizations of the songs that appear on this album on other albums. And yes, there is something insulting about buying a c.d. - even a classical jazz one - and getting less than half an hour of music on it!

The best track is "We Can't Go On This Way," the low point is "Sugar Blues."

For other similar artists and songs, please check out my reviews of:
Loreena McKennitt - Parallel Dreams
Benny Goodman - This Is Benny Goodman
Celine Dion - My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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