Last month, I was approached to interview Storm Large, a performer who was off my radar until this request. Through a quick Wikipedia search though, I learned that she's mostly a punk-ish/rock-ish "chick." She's amassed a solid catalog of recordings and has an impressive history performing with more widely known talent, including retro-chic band Pink Martini (as co-lead singer with China Forbes).
What piqued my interest about this pitch, however, was that the new album her team was promoting ("Le Bonheur") seemed off-center from what I perceived Storm's focus to be. Instead of an average rock album, it showcases the classics -- starting surprisingly with the great American Songbook, then spiraling out from there with diverse selections including by Jacques Brel, Black Sabbath and Lou Reed, as well as a couple of tracks by Storm herself.
Intriguing, but I couldn't help feel that I was listening to a "me too" pitch for the recent Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett duet release, "Cheek to Cheek." In essence, it's the same concept: lady rock singer turned chanteuse. Having also listened to "Cheek to Cheek" (and after seeing Gaga and Bennett perform this summer at the Montreal Jazz Festival), here is my assessment: Gaga and Storm have, to Storm's detriment, eerily similar vocal power and tone. Likely a coincidence too, both albums were released within days of each other -- a seemingly dangerous move -- essentially putting Storm up against the megastar Gaga. Simply put, circumstances that for Storm could equal disaster.
However, business aside, Storm actually wins this round with "Le Bonheur," a curated selection of tracks that go beyond a surface attempt at proving range and versatility by just presenting classic songs. Instead, with a thoughtful and meticulous approach, the result is a compelling, beautiful and enchanting album from start to finish.
Storm's take on the likes of "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Unchained Melody," and "Ne Me Quitte Pas" offer a haunting new perspective on these famous songs, and her penned tracks "Stand Up For Me," and "A Woman's Heart" are touching and instrospective without bordering on sap. Her '60s-inspired "N.I.B" (Black Sabbath) and Blondie-esque "Satellites of Love" (Lou Reed) provide a playful balance and variety that benefit the album overall. Storm goes beyond a rocker singing well-known tracks, and proves that with time she's matured, allowing her to conquer new material without losing the edge that has been key to her success.
When I raised the comparison between these two performers to Heinz Records, Storm's record label, a representative admitted, "to be frank, you caught us off guard on this one." However, they went on to say, "We can see what brought you to this comparison. Bold divas with their own take on classics. "Le Bonheur" certainly represents [the] Great American Songbook -- however the arrangements sound garden-fresh. Furthermore, [the] album refuses genrification [sic] in its cohesive exploration of songs from a wide range of musical histories. Is there something here for Cole Porter fans? Yes. Is there something here for Bad Brains fans too? Yes. But first and foremost this album is for those who appreciate Storm's musical largess. I'm not sure you could say the same for Cheek to Cheek."
In all transparency, despite what I've learned about Storm Large, I'll admit that outside of this album her other work doesn't appeal to me. However, I've been a consistent fan of Lady Gaga and I admire her role as one of today's biggest stars in educating younger audiences about the American Songbook. But, in this instance when comparing the artistry and appeal of Storm Large's "Le Bonheur" to Lady Gaga's contribution on "Cheek to Cheek," it's simply David vs. Goliath with Storm coming out as the undisputed champ.
"I just wanted to make a beautiful record," Storm says of her latest release. "Mostly [I] just wanted to make something really beautiful that I would enjoy listening to... and, so I did, and I'm really happy with it. It's the best-sounding thing I think I've ever done."
So, I asked if the reason this album seems different is because it reflects a new maturity both personally as well as in her work. Storm laughed and admitted, "Yeah, intentionally and also consciously, because I'm forty-five," without trying to impress an agelessness to her persona. "I need to be able to sustain the amount of physical performing that I'm doing and just can't do punk and rock and roll five days a week."
Storm also credits her development in part to performing with celebrated "big band," Pink Martini, known globally for their unique takes on classic songs from around the world. "Since I've started singing with Pink Martini," Storm says of the relationship, "my voice has become much more physically adjusted to the chanteuse and the ballad. It's in a really beautiful place and I'm enjoying that kind of music."
Storm points specifically to the influence of Pink Martini co-founder Thomas Lauderdale who she says has "really taught me to listen and taught me to use my voice in a more emotionally honest way." "Singing with him, and also having to behave myself and reel in my more ribald humor, and yet still be entertaining, is very new to me."
"I'm still a total jackass on stage, no matter what I'm doing," Storm admits, "but the music has definitely matured and that's a conscious choice. It's embarrassing for me to try and be youthful, funky, fist pumping and cynical -- because that's just not who I am. I've calmed down."
"Even in my calm, I'm happy," Storm says, somewhat telling as the album title, "Le Bonheur" is French for "happiness." But, even if she's matured, she's not lost touch with her outrageous self. Talking about the album title, Storm giggles and says that "Le Bonheur" also "sounds like boner, and it's hap-PENIS. It's wonderful."
Demonstrating balance, Storm says openly, "I'm just a little more conscientious about how I aim my jackassery."
"Le Bonheur" is available on CD in stores and online for digital download. Storm will be performing a series of concerts to celebrate the album's release at Joe's Pub in New York City beginning on October 23rd, followed by additional cities nationwide. Tour dates are currently scheduled through March.
For more information about Storm Large, "Le Bonheur" and her upcoming tour, visit www.stormlarge.com.