Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Cast Recording Review: Stereophonic

Cast Recording Review: 

Opening to universal critical acclaim in April, Stereophonic received a record thirteen Tony nominations, including Best Score and - in what I think is a first for a play - Best Orchestrations. Featuring songs by Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire (a Grammy winner for the “big prize” of Album of the Year in 2012 for The Suburbs), the play follows the studio-bound travails of a 1970s band as it struggles to record its magnum opus over the course of a year. On stage, most of these songs are heard in truncated form as works in progress; the recording of course preserves these, and adds a few other completed tracks to give listeners a taste of what the fictional finished product might have sounded like. (Because of this mix of songs written for the stage and for the recording, and because the former aren’t in exactly the same order as they’re performed in the play, I’ll be skipping around the track list in this review.)

Of the three songs that are heard in mostly complete form in the play, “Drive” is sung and (fictionally) written by keyboardist Holly (
Juliana Canfield). Its propulsive beat and almost disco-like flourishes contrast with its rather lugubrious harmonies and lyrics, evoking a promise of love that’s always just out of reach (“oh, this world was made for sorrow… is it only in my head?”). Pretty much every song on the recording sticks to this main theme of not-perfectly-requited longing, a theme in perfect consonance with the up-and-down relationships among the play’s seven vividly-drawn characters.

Equally infectious/wistful is the ubiquitous “Masquerade,” with lead vocals by mercurial auteur and guitarist Peter (Tom Pecinka). With lyrics suggesting that people can only really come together when they hide some part of themselves, the song features infectious guitar hooks throughout, and culminates in an epic coda whose repeated intonations of “I’ll see you when I get there” are reminiscent of the similarly striking finale of a certain real-life song from the 1970s (“chains keep us together”). (The association of the unnamed Stereophonic band with Fleetwood Mac is inevitable, but “Masquerade” is the only song that really feels like it would fit comfortably on Rumours.)

The third song from the play is “Bright,” from the band’s rising superstar Diana (Sarah Pidgeon). As in the play, three versions of the song are heard on the recording, as she and the rest of the band (especially Peter) shape it into its final form. In “Bright v1” Diana accompanies herself on the piano to a very slow and soulful delivery that is reminiscent of Adele at her most doleful. “Bright (Fast)” lives up to both adjectives, a sunny and steady pop concoction that emphasizes the light to come rather than the darkness from which it proceeds. The last song on the album is “Bright (Take 22),” where the pieces come together to make for a song with real emotional development: beginning quietly and darkly like the first version, it works its way through grungy guitar chords and a gradual Jim Steinman-like buildup (complete with a grand organ accompaniment), finally reaching its ecstatic climax. (In the play we learn that the song ended up being six minutes long, so even this track apparently isn’t the final version; we also learn that it’s probably going to be cut from the album anyhow.)

Of the remaining complete songs on the CD, “Seven Roads” actually is heard very briefly on stage. Its driving bass line gives it a decidedly funky feel, and the song provides an opportunity for Pacinka to really show off his soaring vocals (both alone and in glorious harmony with band mates). Pigeon’s “East of Eden” boasts the album’s most expansive and haunting melody, as she asks: “why do we have to choose when everything is right in front of you?” Its reveal of the title words is a particularly striking musical moment. Canfield’s “Domino” starts off as pleasantly intense but nondescript, an impression negated by the second half of the song, which (like “Masquerade”) features several dazzling shifts in tone and tempo. Finally, “In Your Arms,” with vocals again by Canfield, superficially presents itself as the most upbeat song on the recording, as the singer sings “in your arms I feel all right” to a rosy lilt. A closer listen, however, reveals a darker truth: she’s struggling to remember a happy time in her youth rather than living one in the present.  

The remaining few tracks, all short, mainly give the listener a feel for the context of the play in which the songs are situated. We hear casual banter among the engineers (Grover/Eli Gelb and Charlie/Andrew R. Butler - “Exorcist II”) and the band members (“It’s made of teak” - a conversation I listened for when I saw the play and never actually caught, though it seems like it would be easy to miss). There’s also a brief track of the three singers recording background vocals (“BVs”), some experimental musical meandering (“Champaign”), and a little acoustic reprise (“Campfire Masquerade”).

Overall, this recording is great the first time you hear it and only gets better on repeat visits, with a musical profile that’s simultaneously retro and not the least bit out of date, and tunes that are always catchy. The sound is rich and detailed - more like a polished studio album than a one-day cast recording - and the five actors do an impressive job sounding like expert musicians. (A shout-out to drummer Simon/Chris Stack, bassist Reg/Will Brill, and orchestrator/guitarist Will Craig is definitely called for here.) I would have liked to have heard more of this music in the theater, but I appreciate the discipline of the creative team in including only what was necessary to support the dramatic situations presented on stage. 

I’ve read that playwright David Adjmi is looking to write a musical with Butler. If that score can match the quality of these Stereophonic songs, I’m there for it, and I’m sure a lot of other fans will be there, too.

Thank you, Mike! A great review befitting a great play and, now, a great cast recording. - Jeff

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