Stephen Swanson

Was My Brother in the Battle? - Songs of War

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Here's an album of war songs with a difference, or with a lot of differences. Take the two songs by middle twentieth century satirist Tom Lehrer. It's not absolutely unprecedented to hear someone else sing Lehrer's songs, but it's rare enough to make you sit up and take notice of what's going on in the rest of the program. And you find plenty of other original things. It's not just that baritone Stephen Swanson combines art songs, popular music, and songs of the American Civil War, which somehow don't fit either of those categories. The chronological spread of the album is innovative: it's worthwhile to have Civil War songs bump up against those about World War II and Vietnam. And, subject matter aside, the arrangements of popular songs by pianist David Gompper (who also contributes an original setting of an Abraham Lincoln letter) are fresh in themselves. Gompper lets each song be itself, respecting the melody and meter, but he adds accompaniments that vary according to the tone of the lyrics. Bob Dylan's polemical "Masters of War" ("You hide in your mansion/As young people's blood/Flows out of their bodies/And is buried in the mud") gets a stirring, percussive setting, while the more narrative "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," by Australian folk singer Eric Bogle, is given more space to tell its story. Swanson also switches easily between sober treatments and theatrical attitudes, and along with familiar pieces like Charles Ives' "Tom Sails Away" he includes a few real rarities, like musical theater composer Sheldon Harnick's "Merry Little Minuet," which many would refuse to include under the war songs rubric. But of course it is a war song, of a sort, and Swanson's album approaches that classification in an absolutely original way. Highly recommended.

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