Robyn Spangler: Something Cool: The Billy Barnes Sessions

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Robyn Spangler

Something Cool: The Billy Barnes Sessions

(O.P. Records)

September 25, 2017

Reviewed by Elliot Zwiebach for Cabaret Scenes

For a man who wrote so much funny special material, Billy Barnes certainly knew how to write ballads, and Robyn Spangler certainly knows how to sing them.

Her latest CD is the culmination of a two-year project working with Richard Tyler Jordan, Barnes’ life partner for 30 years, to bring more of his work to a contemporary audience, and Spangler has succeeded magnificently.

Her singing is smooth and informed, with a warmth and understanding that reflect the beauty of the music, the intimacy of the lyrics, and her own growing maturity as an artist. Spangler’s liner notes give the songs context that enhance a listener’s appreciation, and Barnes has given her a series of extraordinary pieces to work with.

Aside from “Something Cool,” the title track, which allows Spangler to show off her delicate approach, most of the songs have rarely been heard, including some that have never been recorded. Even “(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair”—probably Barnes’ best-known song—is presented here in its earliest version, taken from sheet music written in his own hand, according to the liner notes.

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The chord progression is very similar to the popular version, and the bridge is almost identical, but the melody, while still simple, direct and touching, is even sadder, and Spangler does a great job conveying the melancholy of the song.

Melancholy is a recurring theme in most of the 10 tracks on the CD. In “The Other One,” Spangler is bittersweet, though not bitter, as the mistress who’s aware of her place in a man’s life (“He’s got a wife and another one/I’m the other one”); and in the beautiful “Does Anybody Here Love Me?

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,” she’s a woman with self-doubts seeking approval. Spangler is beautiful and heartbreaking in her performance, with great saxophone support from Robert Kyle.

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 The other musicians on the CD are Todd Schroeder playing powerful piano, plus Tim Christensen on bass and Chris Jago on drums.

The last two cuts are the most touching: In “Was It Worth It?” Spangler gives a sweet reading to a song in which a person questions the value of the life he’s lived; and the album ends with an unpublished song—the last one Barnes wrote—called “Just Up Ahead,” about facing one’s future with optimism, that benefits from a lovely flute solo by Kyle.

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The CD does have two upbeat numbers.

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Spangler is joyful on “Wonderful World Full of Love,” written as a counter-melody to the Sherman Brothers’ “It’s a Small World,” which Barnes composed for a TV special marking the opening of Disney World in 1971. She takes it nice and easy on “Talkin’ to Myself Again,” composed for Danny Kaye as Geppetto to sing in a 1976 TV version of Pinocchio.

Elliot Zwiebach

Elliot Zwiebach loves the music of The Great American Songbook and classic Broadway, with a special affinity for Rodgers and Hammerstein. He's been a professional writer for 45 years and a cabaret reviewer for five. Based in Los Angeles, Zwiebach has been exposed to some of the most talented performers in cabaret—the famous and the not-so-famous—and enjoys it all. Reviewing cabaret has even pushed him into doing some singing of his own — a very fun and liberating experience that gives him a connection with the performers he reviews.