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(The Lab Records 302 061 512 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/16/2005)
Actors and musicians are both performers, but there are not a lot of people who can succeed in both fields. A number of musicians have made the transition to acting, from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash. But there are fewer examples of established actors who have been artistically successful in recording careers, especially as songwriters.
This week we have a worthy example of an artist who has maintained both an acting career and a recording career. Rebecca Pidgeon is not exactly a superstar in either, but she has come up with an intriguing and worthwhile CD as a singer-songwriter. It's at least her fifth release, called Tough on Crime.
Ms. Pidgeon has had a varied and interesting career. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her parents were theater people, and Rebecca attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. But she was also pursuing a singing career since age 19. While at the Academy, she was signed to a small record label in the UK, and released an album with a group called Ruby Blue, which led to a major label contract in England in 1989.
But in what was one of a series of turns in her career, while intending to concentrate on her music, she landed a part in the London premiere production of Speed the Plow, and temporarily shelved her musical career. It was around that time that she married playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, and moved to the US with him, first living in New England, and more recently in Los Angeles. In a career balancing act, she appeared in a number of films, including "Heist," "Shopgirl," "The Spanish Prisoner" and recorded three albums in the mid to late 1990s for the audiophile oriented Chesky label.
Raising a family and her acting career again put her music on hold for a while. But she maintained contact with producer Larry Klein, known for his work his ex-wife Joni Mitchell. Pidgeon and Klein planned to do a CD together, as she was writing songs intermittently. After a six-year gap in her recording career, Ms. Pidgeon is out with Tough on Crime.
Ms. Pidgeon combines a pleasing, slightly wispy voice, with excellent songwriting. Her lyrics can run from the witty to the ironic, while musically, there is a good degree of sophistication, with a slightly jazzy quality. The musical backing is first-classs with Klein, along with jazz and fusion drummer Scott Amendola, and guests including Billy Preston, who had played keyboards on Beatles albums, and Steely Dan's Walter Becker making a cameo appearance on guitar. The sound is a cross between contemporary electronically-driven and a kind of soulful groove, that can also get jazzy.
The CD opens with Learn to Pray, which establishes the CD's sound, with the blend of airy pop with a vague jazzy undercurrent. Though it's not the album's most memorable track, combines an appealing sound and adroit lyrics. <<>>
The track Tangerine turns toward a kind of cabaret sound, with a bossa nova beat, while the lyrics consider an affair from a distinctive viewpoint. <<>>
One of the album's definite highlights is the title track Tough on Crime, which expound on the drawbacks of having an affair with a comic book superhero. Walter Becker of Steely Dan makes his appearance on guitar, in this clever tune with a kind of seductively slinky rhythm. <<>>
In a similar vein is Nasty Guy, which features Billy Preston prominently on organ. The lyrics don't beat around the bush, while still maintaining some playfulness. <<>>
Also with an infectious groove and what I think has potential as a single release, is Ordinary Blues. It's a good example of everything the CD does right, from the clever lyrics to the eclectic mix of electronic beat with the bluesy harmonica. <<>>
In a rather different vein is Magazine, whose lyrics set upon tabloid star gossip magazines. <<>>
The Romance of Everyday Life is well-named. The slightly bluesy song considers the art of flirting with someone encountered in a coffee shop. <<>>
The CD ends with a piece whose lyrics were written by Ms. Pidgeon's husband David Mamet. Army Brat is listed as an extra track, and has rather timeless lyrics on the subject of being a soldier. <<>>
Rebecca Pidgeon is one of those few performers who maintains a career as an actor and is a worthy singer-songwriter. Her new CD Tough on Crime operates on several levels -- the music's rhythmic groove and her voice give the CD instant appeal, but there are also the intelligent, often clever lyrics, and the creative musical backing that weaves between synthesizer pop and jazz influence. Producer Larry Klein's arrangements add much to the songs.
Sonically, though, the album is a disappointment. After recording some CDs for an audiophile-oriented label, Ms Pidgeon seems to go to the opposite extreme. We'll charitably give it a "C" as a grade. The problem is that old bugaboo, excessive volume compression that kills all the dynamics of the performance, and often reaches the point of distortion. Everything has a flat, featureless, but "in your face" quality that is inappropriate for this kind of music.
It has been six years since Rebecca Pidgeon's last album, during which time she has been maintaining her acting career, and tending to the demands of her family. After starting on the ideas for this CD in 2002, she is finally out with Tough on Crime, and except for the shortfall in sonic quality, it's a thoroughly worthwhile and appealing album.
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