July 9, 2013

The drummer from the Broadway production of Avenue Q, Michael Croiter, is at the helm of his own record label and it is making major inroads into the business of musical theater recording. There aren’t many labels competing in the field, but we who have filled our shelves with the recent products of PS Classics, Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight and Masterworks Broadway are beginning to find space for nifty new releases from something called Yellow Sound Label.

Croiter owns Yellow Sound Lab, a boutique recording studio in a converted hair salon in Manhattan’s  East Village. The lab is known as “the musical home of Sesame Street” where Croiter and his colleagues earned the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Editing for Sesame Street both this year and last. He also won that award three years ago for work on The Electric Company.  

I first noticed Yellow Sound Label in 2009 when they started releasing recordings of songs by theater people. They offered Chita Rivera with And Now I Swing, Alan Cumming’s I Bought A Blue Car Today and a compilation of cabaret songs by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. The following year they issued a score recording: John Tartaglia’s ImaginOcean.

Last year saw the release of The Burnt Part Boys, a small band, atmospheric blend of blue grass, country and dramatic underscoring that I featured here last January. 

Then three of their titles, ImaginOcean, Fugitive Songs and Joshua Slzman and Ryan Cunningham’s superb Next Thing You Know made it into Theater Shelf’s Holiday Gift Guide. Since then the new titles from this enterprising label have just kept coming on. Three new ones sit on my desk right now.

The first one is the original Off-Broadway cast recording of See Rock City & Other Destinations, with marvelous music by Brad Alexander and sharp lyrics by Adam Mathias. Mathias won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book for a Musical in 2011, beating out better known competition including Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez for The Book of Mormon. Alexander had to be satisfied with the nomination for the Outstanding Music Award because Parker, Stone and Lopez took that one home along with the Outstanding Lyrics award for which Mathias had also been nominated.

See Rock City had been gathering momentum, awards and fans in fringe presentations, competitions and workshops since at least 2007. It won the Jerry Bock Award for Excellence in Musical Theatre in 2007 and the 2008 Richard Rodgers Award and finally reached off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street in 2010. It’s about time we got a cast recording, and Yellow Sound has done its typically sharp sounding, intimate recording treatment with the off-Broadway cast. (They throw in one “bonus track” with Newsies star Jeremy Jordan singing the title song.) Both musically and lyrically, this is an interesting and satisfying new small musical that is getting a few productions around the country. The existence of this recording should help spread the word and stimulate more productions.

This was followed by the world premiere recording of Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock musical Murder Ballad, the show that had its debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club last year.

Rock musicals are difficult to bring off in original cast albums because they often feature music that is more about attitude and atmosphere than about those staples of musical theater: story and character. This album captures the attitude part quite well, with packaging that reflects the aesthetic of rock clubs and sub-culture venues.

However, the synopsis is brief and written without any indication of where the songs fit into the story and there are no lyrics included at all. Thus, the listener is set adrift with little to help orient him or her as more than an hour of rock insistence plays out on speakers or earphones. The score has strong melodic structure and there are individual lines of lyrics that jump to the foreground. But just what is going on is often unclear.

What is more, the performance is captured with that edge-of-distortion sound that rock music often has in a live performance, resulting in distortion which complicates the understanding at key points. The result is an album likely to be valued by those who experienced the show live more than by those who did not.

This was followed just a few weeks later by a superbly documented and recorded album of Bill Russell’s latest project, The Last Smoker in America which premiered at CATCO in Columbus Ohio in 2010 and made it to New York for a short run at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street last fall. If Murder Ballad is a deadly serious rock musical, The Last Smoker in America is a rock satire.

Russell, the man who wrote the book and lyrics that sat well on the music of Henry Krieger for the Broadway musical Side Show, teams up here with Peter Melnick who was responsible for the sparkling score of Adrift in Macao which he turned out with Christopher Durang. Here Russell is working in a much less serious mode and Melnick, one of Richard Rodgers’ grandchildren, contributes light-weight tunes to carry the satire along. Each of the songs are take-offs of styles. 

For instance:

- A funky gangsta rap called “Gangsta” is sung by a white teen from suburbia.
- A sing along about what your lungs would say if they could talk – “Help! Help! Help!”
- A song that defines itself in the text as “classic rock with an Emo flair” but descends into an Irish jig.
- A spiritual parody titled “Let The Lord Be Your Addiction.”

It is fairly easy to figure out what is going on just by listening to the disc and the booklet includes the full lyrics even though the enunciation here is quite clear. Still, a short synopsis would let you in on the jokes a bit sooner and save you from having to figure out who is who. 

Yellow Sound Label included a short synopsis on its website but didn’t print it  the booklet. Here it is so you don’t have to look it up online:

“In a world where smoking has recently been outlawed and the penalties are growing stricter by the minute, Pam is having an impossible time trying to quit. Her husband Ernie dreams of being a rock star and relentlessly practices his guitar in the basement, while their videogame-addicted son Jimmy listens to so much rap music he thinks he’s black. As if Pam isn’t pushed to the edge of reason already, her nosy, anti-smoking zealot neighbor Phyllis is on a mission to catch transgressors mid-puff. Will Pam kick the habit or fight for her right to light up?”

One thing the three new releases have in common is the occasional appearance of what is today referred to as “Explicit Lyrics.” In See Rock City you will find a track titled “You Are My …” The “…” stands for “bitch” in a song in which two high-school age boys attempt to out-macho each other before they succumb to their homo-erotic attraction to each other. In Murder Ballad, Jordan hasn’t resisted the call of scatological references in her lyrics, and Russell indulges in supposedly shocking verbiage time and time again throughout The Last Smoker in America. Still, it is unlikely that any of these lyrics will come as a shock to most adult listeners.

While the newest three releases seem to be in descending order of quality with See Rock City being somewhat more complex and interesting than Murder Ballad which is, itself, a somewhat more interesting rock musical than the rock satire Last Smoker, it looks as if we who are interested in not just the latest on Broadway but in the newer works in smaller venues should make room on their shelves for Yellow Sound Label releases.

We owe them a debt of gratitude for what has been released to date and we can hold the fervent wish that more will come soon.


See Rock City & Other Destinations
Original Off-Broadway Recording
Running time 48 minutes over 16 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis and lyrcs
Yellow Sound Label catalog YSL 566583
Murder Ballad
World Premiere Cast Recording
Running time 1:12 over 39 tracks
Packaged with brief synopsis
Yellow Sound Label catalog YSL 567103
The Last Smoker in America
Original Cast Recording
Running time 48 minutes over 16 tracks
Packaged with notes and lyrics
Yellow Sound Label catalog YSL 566883

Yellow Sound Label