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That's classic.

Sing You Sinners

* Erin McKeown * Nettwerk

The great American song isn't in danger of extinction. For that, thank Linda Ronstadt. Ever since she teamed up with a dying Nelson Riddle for her '80s saccharine standards albums, many a pop star past their hit-making prime--Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah--has resorted to ransacking Tin Pan Alley. At this point Rod Stewart has recorded almost as many songbook albums as Ella Fitzgerald.

For better or worse, this practice ensures that the oeuvre of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, et al will not vanish any time soon. But there is a diminishing supply of singers who can interpret these ditties in ways that make them still sound fresh and vital. In recent years Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Short, and Anita O'Day have all gone to the glory. Tony Bennett can't live forever. Who will fill their sizable shoes? Ritalin poster child Jamie Cullum and smarmy Harry Connick Jr. knockoff Michael nubia?

No. How about a 29-year-old lesbian from Northampton, Mass., instead?

Erin McKeown's Sing You Sinners isn't merely a ray of hope for fans of classic jazz and pop vocalists; it's a goddamn solar flare. Accompanied by a crackerjack trio, the singer-guitarist has a ball on her fifth full-length album, romping through mostly little-known numbers composed between 1930 and 1956. She swings hard on "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" but lets a clever lyric ("Pencils come from Pennsylvania / Vests from Vest Virginia") do most of the work. During "Coucou" she acquits herself gracefully en Francais, flirting with a sinewy clarinet line as the melody casually unfolds.

A conversational mezzo-soprano, McKeown never sounds like she's trying to prove anything--except maybe how much she loves this repertoire. Her pitch isn't laser-sharp, but like Peggy Lee and Chet Baker she has rhythmic savvy and exuberance that easily compensate. This is particularly evident on the smattering of better-known songs. A confessed Judy Garland fan, she opens with a light, gleeful rendition of "Get Happy," enlivened by a small brass ensemble. At the other end of the spectrum, she takes Porters "Just One of Those Things" at a crawl; her spacy, brooding interpretation actually ekes surprises out of this time-worn standard.

Up to now McKeown has been known primarily for her thoughtful originals, which makes this detour into standards even more impressive. She treated the project as a lark (it was recorded live-in-studio in four days) yet gives the songs much-needed life, while giants who have hung waning careers on such gambits inevitably flatten them. Even if McKeown never makes another album of this variety, what a treat to know the genre's best traditions will survive a little longer. Imagine Bennett's relief.
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Author:Reighley, Kurt B.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jan 30, 2007
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