Maud Hixson – Don’t Let A Good Thing Get Away

Hixson NoteI’ve been doing this for about ten years, and Maud Hixson is one of my favorite people. I’ve never met her in person, although I keep telling my pals in Minneapolis that because of the large number of good vocalists there (and a very nice new ballpark), I’ll have to go visit one of these days, and maybe – just maybe – I’d get to see Ms. Hixson work up close.

She is just as likely to drop a card from somewhere she’s visiting to say, “Hey – hope you’re well…” as she is to drop a disc with a couple of demos in the mail to say, “Hey – what do you think?”

So before we begin the formal part, you should know that my starting position is this: Maud Hixson is good people.

And nice counts.


Maud Hixson - "Don't Let A Good Thing Get Away"Maud Hixson – Don’t Let A Good Thing Get Away
Released – May 1, 2013

I know more names than I used to, but in the end, I’m a consumer, an end-user, oblivious to even some of the not-so-lesser known names in the music business. So while I probably should know composer Michael Leonard’s name, an entire album subtitled, “The Music Of Michael Leonard” goes right over my head.

And that’s a shame. Because while I don’t know the name, I do know some of these songs, recorded by people like Barbra Streisand, Nancy Sinatra, and…Maud Hixson.

“Several years ago,” she writes in the credits, “I applied to the Minnesota State Arts Board for a grant that would allow me to work with a living composer to explore an entire song catalog and present my discoveries in performance.” Two of Mr. Leonard’s songs come from the 1965 Broadway musical, “The Yearling,” which Mr. Leonard, in a Wall Street Journal interview, called a “total disaster” that ran for only three performances. Yet the Journal author (citing allmusic.com) says the two songs – “I’m All Smiles” and “Why Did I Choose You,” have been recorded by others more than 300 times, which qualifies them as “standards” in anyone’s book.

Maud Hixson - Photo by Olivia WilcoxThe album represents an outstanding group of discoveries, and as usual, Ms. Hixson continues to perform at the very top of her game. She operates at an intimacy level somewhere between cabaret and a larger stage, able to sell each song on its own terms, with that clear, pure voice with which she’s handsomely blessed. Of course, the blessing isn’t enough. There’s also the work to shape it, refine it, hone it. No actor could work these lyrics better, and that is the real art that’s going on here. Master craftsmanship.

Pianist Tex Arnold arranges, save for “Where Do The Lonely Go,” arranged by Gene Bertoncini, who also plays guitar. Good arrangers know how to frame the vocalist, not compete. These guys are good. They’re joined by Warren Vaché on cornet, and Steve LaSpina on bass.

So yes, I’ll like the songs with which I’m most familiar – the two I’ve mentioned, along with the wry “Not Exactly Paris,” originally written for Margaret Whiting; and just like listening to the radio when I was a kid, I’ll get to like the others, too. Because this disc will be in heavy ‘pod rotation for a while.

I don’t have to know all about Michael Leonard to know what’s good. You had me at Maud Hixson.

This disc is very highly recommended.

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I write sometimes about my travels. One thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t need to understand the language to like music. In fact, it may be better if I don’t. If I really like something, I’d hate to discover that it’s about fried chicken or wet dogs.

One of the things that landed in my mailbox recently was a shiny disc from Yasmine Hamdan. She’s billed as a pioneer in Beirut’s electronic music scene, now living in Paris.

This disc sounds more like traditional music to my uneducated ears – the publicity blurb calls it an “elegant, mutant strain of electro folk pop.”

Whatever. I find Ms. Hamdan’s voice hypnotic and beguiling. I could listen to it all day. IMHO, this is the best track from the album, “Yanass,” which releases next month.

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Molly Ringwald – Except Sometimes

Molly Ringwald - Except SometimesMolly Ringwald – Except Sometimes (Concord)
Released – April 9, 2013

She’s not a belter. She’s never going to hit the balcony. And yet, that’s the appeal of this collection of ten standards from Molly Ringwald, she of the seemingly endless string of 80s John Hughes teen angst movies – from “Pretty In Pink” to “Sixteen Candles;” and who forgets Claire Standish in the classic “The Breakfast Club?”

We’re nearly 30 years down the road, and while Ms. Ringwald may not be the youngster she once was, there’s still a youthful vulnerability to her voice and a palpable intimacy, especially on the ballads. “The Very Thought Of You” is one of my favorites. She and the group (top notch) take their time with this one, and it pays off.

Molly Ringwald - Photo by Hussein Katz Other favorites include the playful “Exactly Like You,” with a nice riff in the middle by Allen Mezquida on alto saxophone, joined by Charles Owens on tenor sax on the delightfully swingy “I’ll Take Romance.” The backing quintet is first-rate – arranger (and piano guy) Peter Smith makes sure the star gets the proper frame, here.

And while she’s no teenager, she won’t let us forget about the past – with a sweetly mature “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” anthem from “The Breakfast Club,” recut as a wistful ballad. Clear and pure, Ms. Ringwald’s voice is just as sweetly sincere as her 80s film persona.

This album is highly recommended.

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Sad news this week – the passing of Annette Funicello at the age of 70. The former Mouseketeer had a string of Top-40 hits between 1959 and 1960. For some reason, I thought “Pineapple Princess” was the biggest, but Ms. Funicello’s first release “Tall Paul” got that honor, peaking at #7 on the Billboard chart in 1959. Here’s a clip – from an “American Bandstand” appearance:

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Fawn Fritzen – Bedroom Voice

I’ve got to admit, first thing I thought of when I saw the title of this album was a flashback to Mom talking about my “outdoor voice” and my “indoor voice.” As a child, I never learned about a “bedroom voice,” even from Dad’s talks about birds and bees.  That came later.

On a different topic altogether, what Dad did say was that sometimes to command attention, you need to speak softly.


Fawn Fritzen - Bedroom VoiceFawn Fritzen – Bedroom Voice
Released – March 26, 2013

This is a gentle recording, but it demands active listening. And because of that, I quickly came to appreciate the porcelain nature of Fawn Fritzen’s voice, full of subtle blues and honeyed desires. Of the title, Fawn Fritzen writes, “To me, it says quiet, sultry, and sensual. It speaks of love, perhaps of longing, perhaps loss. It speaks of emotion, deeply felt, but whispered.”

Four originals mingle well with six cover tunes here – nicely handcrafted, all of them. My favorite of the four is “I’m A Fool For You,” with hints of Crystal Gayle, especially when the stops get pulled out for the (relatively) big finish. Another favorite is the smoldering original “Under My Skin,” and its age old story of two loves and longing. The original “Life So Sweet” was an entry in CBC’s “Searchlight” competition for new Canadian talent.

Photo by Christian KuntzA nearly gospel version of Leonard Cohen’s prayerful “If It Be Your Will” also attracts my attention, and I found myself looking forward to the gossamer version of “The Gentle Rain,” performed in both English and impeccable German when it came around in the rotation.

A word about Daniel Janke, who co-produces the album, and performs in nearly all the tracks, on piano, organ and upright bass. He manages to thread the needle – and is both noticed and admired by perfectly framing Ms. Fritzen’s flawless performance.

Ms. Fritzen hails from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory – where, in the winter, the average temperature at night is well below zero.

Except, perhaps, in the Fritzen household. Fawn is using her bedroom voice.

Highest recommenation for this outstanding debut.

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Paula Cole is one of those artists whose work refuses to be classified. Is it folk? Is it jazz? Country? Doesn’t matter. It’s mostly all good. She raised $50K in a Kickstarter campaign last fall, in order to produce a new album (“Raven”) in a way that pleases only her.

And if this track is any indication, plenty of us, too. Release date is April 23.

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Emmy Rossum – Sentimental Journey

Emmy Rossum - Sentimental JourneyEmmy Rossum – Sentimental Journey
(Warner Bros.)

Released – January 2013

A more traditional release than the three-track EP actress Emmy Rossum released in 2007, this is a solid sophomore effort that deserves a listen.

Best known for a Golden Globe nomination for the 2009 film version of Phantom of the Opera, and a role in the Showtime television series Shameless – this album is a much better representation of her impressive vocal skill.

Set around a calendar year – from spring on into winter – Ms. Rossum is able to breathe some new life into songbook classics like the title track, as well as some off-road chestnuts like 1933’s “Keep Young And Beautiful.”  About the classics, Ms. Rossum says, “Classics, jazz, and standards really infused my childhood and so it felt quite natural to finally make this record.”

rossum200-2Some surprising choices from the sixties were my favorites – Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind,” and even the ultra-pop “Things,” originally written and recorded by Bobby Darin.

A small band doubling up on instruments keeps the recording engineers busy on this – but Ms. Rossum’s mastery of the material is always front and center.

I scarcely remember the first album, six years ago. This one will be in heavy rotation for a while.

Highly recommended.

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