Stephanie Acraman & Liam Wooding – The Complete Cabaret Songs Of William Bolcom (Rattle)
On the latest Rattle label release two Kiwis interpret the slyly witty cabaret songs of an obscure American songwriting duo.
Excuse me if I’ve told this story before, but back in the late ‘70s I aspired to collect every single album released on the West German record label, ECM. I was enraptured with the label partly because of its consistent aesthetic, which transferred from the cover artwork to the consistently high standard of recording. It helped that, in a time before so-called “world” music broke through, label owner Manfred Eicher was bold in suggesting collaborations between musicians from wildly different backgrounds. In short, I liked nearly all the releases I managed to get hold of from import racks. But once in a while, one would come along that was just too difficult to digest. Which isn’t to say that I can’t handle weird or experimental or fringe. It’s just that some music genres are very much an acquired taste. This burst my ECM bubble and although I remain an appreciator, I never did become the proud owner of every single slice of plastic on the label.
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In New Zealand, Steve Garden’s art music label Rattle is kind of like the Antipodean equivalent of ECM. Each release is produced with unusual care from the artwork through the audio engineering and mastering, and the label is fearless when it comes to artist and repertoire. Like ECM, I guess you could say that it tends to be jazz-leaning, but also incorporates classical releases, left-field rock and electronic, recordings of ancient Maori instruments, and even a couple of idiosyncratic pop albums.
I’m fairly determined to accumulate every single album Rattle releases, but at this point, I’m failing miserably. Despite the relatively limited audience for most of its releases, the label only seems to become more prolific as time passes. Unlike new releases in the popular domain, every single thing Rattle releases has some merit, but at the same time, as The Complete Cabaret Songs Of William Bolcom proves, a few of them are for acquired tastes only.
New Zealanders Stephanie Acraman and Liam Wooding sing and play piano respectively on this album of interpretations of the songs of American composer William Bolcom and his lyricist Arnold Weinstein. It’s very New York school via the German cabaret tradition, and Acraman sings Weinstein’s playful and slyly witty lyrics mostly in a cod-operatic fashion, which she occasionally rejects in favour of a simpler style more redolent of those Weimar cabaret ancestors.
One’s appreciation of the album will depend on your interest in songs influenced by that tradition, and sadly, I have to report that I just don’t find it that compelling. Acraman’s operatics don’t appeal, the lyrics seem to think they’re cleverer than they are, and the minimalism of just voice and piano makes keeping engaged in the listening experience somewhat of a chore. That’s me, you understand, and I’m sure that others will disagree completely. The album might be a revelation to fans of the genre who are searching for something more or less in the tradition, but which is ballsy enough to write a new chapter.
Wooding’s playing throughout is enjoyable, but the vocals are dominant. Personally, I think Frank Zappa wrote funnier/smarter lyrics in his sleep, then filled his compositions with fascinating embellishments that are hard to grow tired of listening to. That’s the maximalist approach. I can handle minimalism if it’s enchanting or moody or atmospheric, but it’s harder to appreciate music that’s both very spare and only occasionally throwing up something of musical interest.
I’m still hoping to own every single Rattle release, including this one. But I suspect that it won’t get playlisted. If in any doubt, check it out yourself!