Considerations of Flight of Fancy --
By Peter Timmerman
It was Sir Philip Sidney (or was it Castiglione?) who invented -- or let’s say labelled -- the incredibly hard-to-define-but-you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality the Italians call sprezzatura, or casual grace. “Oh, this old thing?” Sir Phil says diffidently as you admire the Ming vase he keeps his toothbrush in. That sort of style.
Speaking of Ming Vases and toothbrushes, there is Flight of Fancy, the album by Joanne Crabtree and Paul Mills. It is not just that Joanne seems to have figured out how to channel Peggy Lee into her own writing (note, when push comes to shove, the salacious deftness sprinkled here and thereabouts); but there is also the filigreed excellence of the multiple styles tossed off by Paul -- “Oh, this old thing?”
Towards the end of her life, my mother who was once a professional tennis player, used to watch bigtime tennis on television, and amidst the bashing and grunting and cursing she would shake her head and say: “What ever happened to real tennis?” And then she would answer herself and say: “It only survives in mixed doubles”. Only there could one still find the deftness, the mutual strategic understanding, and a little of that lost classic elegance. Every time I see or hear Crabtree and Mills I think: mixed doubles. She serves, he volleys; he serves, she volleys; they move in and out of each other’s strengths, and together they are the top of the game.
For a couple of for instances, consider “I Love To Love” and “To Keep My Love Alive”. These classic Tin Pan Alley numbers, in the “Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Let’s Fall In Love” tradition, are witty and sassy and smart and really hard to sing properly. They require timing and pace and articulation and a certain sly cunning to keep them from becoming just one more joke after another. If you have ever heard “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” sung by a road company production of “Kiss Me Kate”, you will have some idea of how bad this sort of thing can get. For some idea of how good this sort of thing can get, I give you Joanne’s version of the style. Notice the big stuff: how in “I Love To Love” she and Curly Boy not only bat the conversational ball back and forth, but they hold the arc of the song in the palms of their hands. Or notice the small stuff: “I’ve got me a hobby, my hobby is -- man.” Man!
Wonderful as these songs are, they are still more or less in the foothills. “Miss Otis Regrets” is right out there on the top of the mountain with no net and no tree to hide behind or be hung from. It is not hard to sing, it is total hell to sing. Singers with acrophobia (fear of heights) or agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) beware. This song can die more ways than a CSI case. Camp it up? Play it safe? Let it drag? Might as well put the tag on its toe and move it on brother.
On the other hand, Ms. Crabtree takes “Miss Otis” and like only a very, very few of her sisters in song paints it as a living, breathing life, whole and entire. Listen to the quality of her voice -- the velvet of “velvet gown”, the strung up “strung her up”, the momentary rasping lift in “lifted up her lovely head and cried.” No regrets, madam.
I would remind you that so far on this album we are checking out other people’s songs from a while ago. Turn to a song like “Put Me First” and one discovers the extent to which Joanne has absorbed the sassy part of the craft, and made it her own. But that is not all she can do. The more sober part of the craft -- the part that life alone teaches -- comes into its own in “What Else Can I Do?” and “JJ’s Lullabye”: songs about doing the ordinary devotional things, in a world filled with shameful things being perpetrated on an inhuman scale.
Throughout this dazzlement, Paul's guitar and production work exhibit their own casual grace (hand me that bottle of sprezzatura, barkeep). Articulation fine; punctuation perfect (Paul seems to be one of the few guitarists who can play semi-colons). Inevitable, sweet. Check out "The Gambler" for Exhibit A.
The album ends with “If I Had Any Pride Left At All”. Somewhere along the line, the rituals of how to do concerts were laid down: end with a happy song, or if you can’t do that, come back with something snappy for your encore. The two times I have heard Crabtree and Mills do this song at various points in their performances, it has completely stopped the show. Everyone in their own secret way falls apart at the power of it. I am amazed that when they finish the song, in the aftermath, everyone just doesn’t turn to everyone else and shake their hands and say: “Well, that is what it is like to be human. Can it get said any harder than that?” and then all get up as one and go home, the job done for the night. The job of illuminating the human condition.
I guess that is not how it is done: but that is how it feels to me. It is fitting that “If I Had Any Pride Left At All” closes the album. At the very least you are maybe already at home and can cry behind your own curtains.
Of course, you could also fix yourself a double something and go back and listen to the fun stuff and the smart stuff and the sober stuff and basically just sit back and listen to this album all over again from the beginning. Nothing wrong with that. You could even pour yourself a mixed double something -- in homage.