Lorraine Feather’s ‘Tales of the Unusual’ will scare you to death — in a good way
“My idea for this album was to write, with my musician collaborators, a collection of songs about unusual adventures, both real and surreal; odd people; and in some cases, ordinary people suddenly overwhelmed by a new emotion of one kind or another.” –Lorraine Feather
Lorraine Feather was born to either write stories or sing jazz. Lucky for us, she does both consistently and with a decidedly confident, offbeat, but densely layered edge, in all her recordings, especially her latest and perhaps most novel.
The Manhattan-California girl comes from music royalty: her mom Jane used to sing in big bands, her dad Leonard used to write jazz before he passed away. She is named after godmother Billie Holiday (yes, Lady Day) and her mom’s ex-roommate, the great singer Peggy Lee. For a time in the beginning there, the young Feather toiled in obscurity waitressing around New York City, feeling frustrated with the anvils in her direction, and making her way into backup bands like her mom.
Galvanized with a new direction to charge, Feather headed back to L.A. where she grew up to pursue her own solo career as a jazz vocalist and found a passion for filling classic instrumentals with her own special lyrics. Her three-year history with producer Richard Perry’s Full Swing vocal trio brought out that lyrical gift to full fruition in their three major albums. Her lyrical work in Horace Henderson’s “Big John’s Special” made it onto the Swing Shift movie soundtrack — a hint of the seven Emmy nominations to come for television and film projects, which include All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Jungle Book 2, and The Princess Diaries 2.
When it came time to record her own albums, she made sure it was done right, with the right collaborators and sidemen, and with a sharp eye toward thoughtful choices that always married musical and stylistic touches with lyrical content and mood. The result is an amazingly varied, studied evolution from interpretation to ground-breaking reinvention: the quirky electronic “The Body Remembers,” the Fats Waller tribute “New York City Drag,” the compilation of original, classic jazz in “Café Society,” the Duke Ellington ode of “Such Sweet Thunder,” “Dooji Wooji,” “Language” (#1 on Amazon.com), and the ever-popular “Ages,” which saw heavy jazz airplay and a Grammy nomination for “Best Jazz Vocal Album.”
Feather’s album release, Tales of the Unusual on Jazzed Media, could very well catapult this distinctive vocalist storyteller into the stratosphere of superstardom, make her a household name across all genres, and at the very least, nab her every jazz award in existence. Since its February 14, 2012 release, the album of original, spooky tales has hit #1 like a rocket on the most recommended list and is poised to take over Jazz Week and college charts.
“Singer, songwriter, and genius collaborationist Lorraine Feather … takes the song into a new stratosphere, and jazz singing into a new place … I think [she has] opened a new door here … stretching the canvas and palette of jazz to the max … going bigger and wider and deeper.” –Janet Coleman, Cat Radio Café (WBAI, NY)
For good reason. Tales of the Unusual is unusually fascinating and ridiculously contagious beyond belief. Its musical/lyrical content tells sickly stories about the disenfranchised, the lonely outcasts, and the just plain strange with an eerie, creepy, awestruck romanticism. That it does this by tapping into whatever musical style and vibe are necessary to fully bring out any time period, through judicious use of specific instrumentation — the sound of horse hooves for a Western saloon feel in “The Usual Suspects,” the violin to underscore the scary factor throughout “The Hole In The Map,” the fast, 1900s Barbershop gallop of piano in “Indiana Lana” — puts Feather and her recording team even more ahead of the game.
This isn’t an album to dismiss as superficial mood music. There is so much going on, a guitar lick here, a violin and bass variant there, words with double meaning, sharp, clever words about distinctly different characters, and the musical choices that more than keep up. Each song could make its own album and make up its own categories.
Credit goes to Feather for the storytelling lyrics and the breathtaking 0-to-50 vocalese, with daring drive-bys past Joni Mitchell, Sting, and Steely Dan, to her faithful songwriting collaborators Eddie Arkin, Shelly Berg, Russell Ferrante, and husband Tony Morales, and to her recording crew, pianists Ferrante and Berg, bassist Michael Valerio, drummers Michael Shapiro and Gregg Field, guitarists Grant Geissman and Mike Miller, and violinist Charles Bisharat, who takes jazz to the next, artful level every time.
Right off the bat, “The Hole In The Map” commands your attention with its mix of deceptively playful, cascading keys, with merely a hint of ominous foreboding in the minor chords at the classically flowy intro. Then Feather comes in with her ethereal, ghostly vocals, singing too sweetly of “homicidal gnats,” “cyanide-squirting millipedes,” and the river “that ate so many alive.” She contrasts the breathless, racing narrative of the Amazon (as seen through her impression of David Grann’s book, “The Lost City Of Z”) with the languid, lazy bridge cutting back to civilization in Devon, with afternoon tea and sleeping “till eleven.” While all this is going on vocally, the musicians in charge of the keyboard, violin, percussion, and guitar are musically running for their lives away from the Amazon river explored in 1925 by Percy Harrison Fawcett (who himself went into the jungles and never came out). The swooping violin and the psychedelic Latin percussive beats mirror the bugs, which scared Feather so much while reading that Grann book, as well as the urgency of escape.
The best song off the 13-track album has to be “Five,” which originally appeared on Feather’s 1997 release, “The Body Remembers.” She wrote this song about a little girl’s obsession with counting everything in fives, with her drummer husband Tony Morales. Pianist Russell Ferrante provided the updated arrangements for the new album. Taking a loose, daring snap and drag off the funky bass, Feather jumps right in on this fast-paced ditty as if a little girl herself gulping too much air and bum-rushing her numerical line-up proudly. The simple “I can count to five” chorus — a perfect blend of pace, cadence, feel, and lyrical genius — is done in such a hypnotic, pop-worthy, and jazz-scat-terrific way that you will find yourself jumping and dancing around, after your jaw hits the ground running. Her “All the way, all the way…[to five]” wraps up the fun, lively chat nicely.
“Get A Room” is all kinds of clever in a modern-day version of a Shakespearean tale of two opposites who get on each other’s nerves, yet — to the outside world — seem destined to be together. The violin, guitar, and piano play stretches, limbers, and grinds, to denote the frenetic, clashing energy of two star-crossed, antagonistic “smart-asses.” Adding the jump rope rhyme (based on a chant, “Bo Bo Ski Waten Taten”), with the “Ah ah, eh eh, say boom boom boom,” adds an urban, smart-assed cool factor to the entire rollicking romp. This one really displays Feather’s affinity for wordplay juxtaposed with an innate sense of rhythm.
Everything slows down to a waltz — cue the formal piano and clipped vocal brocade, on the verge of volcanic passion — and borders very nearly on classical mood music over strictly jazz. But the slower pace can be forgiven considering the serious, sad, and dreamy subject matter of true star-crossed lovers from past lives who never cross in this one. Feather was browsing online “for something else entirely,” when she came across Italian Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi’s “Fellini’s Waltz,” fell in love and received permission to add lyrics to this lush music. The result is her story of a woman and a man who meet at this masked ball, and experience a floodgate of past life memories together as soul mates — all from the touch of his hand in hers (“All at once my mind was filled with photographs | Of a thousand moments yet to be. | I was on the ocean; | I was drifting toward the land. | I loved you when I took your hand”). And yet, when this man asks this woman to dance, she says no, because “I could hardly stand | When I took your hand.” It is at once the sweeping promise of romance and the abrupt, stark collapse of all hope written in the music, the lyrics, and conveyed in the barely halting but discernibly disappointed lapse in her chameleon voice.
I could go on and on in the same gushing, lengthy manner for each and every one of the songs Feather and her longtime collaborators wrote together, or on top of in the classics from Ellington, Pieranunzi, and Nino Rota. Rather than that, go pick up her CD and listen for yourself. Get a cup of tea and take your time. I promise, her songs will swirl around like little spirits in your head for days, weeks, even months to come, and at the strangest of times.
The chorus of the twisty-turny, off-kilter “Where Is Everybody?” (inspired by the first Twilight Zone episode about the astronaut who thinks he’s been left behind by the rest of the world) — “calling all cars, calling all cars, there’s a maniac loose in town” — kept reverberating in my head at my son’s Little League game the other day, out of nowhere.
Artist quotes from a press release.