The sacred and the profane

Morrison flatlines, Ainsworth glows


American standards and Broadway showtunes have their place in the music continuum, their remarkable virtue being timelessness: Sondheim, Porter, Lerner and Loewe — these guys knew how to write a song. But when they’re overdone …? And boy, are they ever on Matthew Morrison’s Where it All Began (222 Records).

In this very uninspired disc, the Glee star claims to pay tribute to his theater roots with a collection of classics. Only he culled they from the same list everyone else uses. We get blah choices like “Luck Be a Lady” (recorded by Dee Snider last year), “The Lady is a Tramp” (recorded by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga in 2011) and a West Side Story medley (as recorded by … oh, everybody).

Unfortunately, Morrison doesn’t possess the personality to match the songs, so when he opens with “Singin’ in the Rain,” his voice, while smooth, is also the equivalent of stock photography. (Even his cover art is cheesier than a Wisconsin dairy.)

It becomes painful when his vanilla voice attempts to diversify his track list by covering The Wiz’s “Ease on Down the Road” with Smokey Robinson. Perhaps it was a show he could never get cast in (I wonder why?), but in what’s the most exciting selection of the dozen tracks, it’s better served as an instrument of torture. Stick to the Bennetts and Streisands for classic tunes; this only leaves you asking “why?”

Half star

necessary-evilMorrison may be a TV and Broadway vet, but he could get seriously schooled by a local gal. Dallas crooner Laura Ainsworth steps out of the cabaret and back into the recording studio with her delightful new CD, the snazzy and jazzy Necessary Evil (Eclectus Records). She can deliver sultry in simple fashion, but the kind that recalls big band clubs in many a black-and-white film airing on TCM. The production value is easy here, but it’s magically transporting to an era far gone.
But what matters most here is that Ainsworth sings with heart (one place Morrison could take a lesson from her). She opts for deep cuts like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Gentleman is a Dope,” and Johnny Mercer’s “Out of this World.” While not obscure tunes, she doesn’t go for the obvious (a glorious flip side to Morrison’s CD).
For the uninitiated she can be an acquired taste, but for patient listeners, these 12 tracks play like a dream. Even when Ainsworth lacks finesse (as on the awkward “Get Out and Get Under the Moon”) the results are nonetheless charming and genuine. She doesn’t sing like a diva, but like a character living in the middle of the music.

Three stars

— R.L.

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