"One of the reasons I love these songs is that they speak of universal themes in a voice that is original, contemporary and unafraid. They're also really enjoyable to sing. Words and music are equal and balanced and the songs are a true collaboration. I've seen and heard Simon and Fran writing, negotiating (gloves off) over words and notes until they come to a truce. It can be quite a bloody battle.Musically I like Simon's fresh take on harmonic and melodic formulae, the melodies are strong and always have a twist and the songs often have unusual phrase lengths not often found in the standard repertoire of show tunes." Sarah Moule, July 2002
THE JAZZ WORLD’S answer to Dorothy Parker, Fran Landesman is a septuagenarian bundle of enthusiasm, brains, and super-literacy. New York-born, but a London resident since 1964, she has turned out eight books of poems and hundreds of songs. Sometimes you’ll find her in British pubs and theaters, intoning her verse in a gravelly voice. Her mind races with ideas. Fran’s original composing partner, the pianist-singer Tommy Wolf, noted this in the liner notes of a 1956 album, Wolf at Your Door. “Fran writes everywhere: in taxis, movies, bed, bathrooms and bars … She writes with incredible speed in curious flashes of intense concentration, as a stenographer taking sudden, urgent dictation from a personal, omnipotent muse.”
That muse has grown wiser, tougher. But even in the ‘50s, Fran had an acid wit. When she wrote about hopeless love – as she did in her biggest hit, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” – she masked it in wisecracking Beat talk. (That song became such a standard that it’s easy to forget how far-out the phrase “hang you up” sounded in 1955.) In another song, “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” she looked closely at the Beat-era hipsters, many of whom she knew, and saw frightened little boys.
Lately, Fran has been on another mad writing binge, triggered by the talent of Simon Wallace, her current composing partner. This CD gathers fourteen of their songs, performed by Sarah Moule, a gifted British jazz singer who loved the duo’s work long before she married Simon. Fran’s words are as probing as ever, but her humor is blacker, the bruises defiantly displayed. “Better to play and run away than to stay and risk getting shot,” she advises. “Whatever I feel for you, my dear, I know I’d better smother” … “I won’t even try to touch your heart.”
They meet once a week to write. “It’s so encouraging,” says Fran, “because whatever lyric I show him, he laughs until he’s ready to burst. He always appreciates what I’ve done. Then once he’s put music to them, as good as the lyrics might seem on the page, it’s like a homely girl getting a fabulous makeover. It’s a perfect marriage. They’re like our children, these songs.”
Sarah Moule’s cool, effortless versions of them are more sardonic than one would expect, in view of her wholesome looks and fine English manners. “Seeming like a good girl is a lot different from actually being one, you know,” she says. As a child in East Sussex, she sang English folk songs with her large musical family. She broke away to become a pop-soul singer and, eventually, a regular in the British jazz-club circuit.
The songs on this CD invite an actor’s approach; happily, Sarah avoids it. Drama is already there in the words of a lyricist who sees through everything: the advances of sweet-talking guys (Some Boys), the hip pose so popular in the ‘50s (It’s Cool to Be Cool), the would-be benevolence of friends (When your Computer Crashes). Occasionally, as in The Heart of Love, Fran surprises us by revealing a fragile core.
James Gavin, New York City, 2002
[James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, published by Chatto & Windus.]