Potions  Takes Lyn Stanley Higher

Second albums make or break pop artists. If the first one was a smash the second one had also better be or you risk the "one hit wonder" label. That's what happened to Christopher Cross, Marshall Crenshaw and more recently James Blunt, even though Cross and Crenshaw followed up their debuts with many good records—or at least good tunes. They just didn't produce chart hits.

In the case of a non-pop artist the follow-up to a promising but not startling debut has to demonstrate artistic and creative growth. If it's merely as good as the first album, it's pretty much over.

Lost In Romance Lyn Stanley's debut was a promising debut—and whether or not you responded positively to it—a gutsy one: closely miked with a sonically unadorned backdrop. You heard everything, which was what Ms. Stanley wanted. It was her record in every sense of the word: she initiated and paid for the production and she made all of the decisions in consultation with a team of her choosing.

Just as there were flashes of truly excellent technical and interpretive singing, there were also some subtly rough phrasing and/or interpretive patches or as I call them "uh-oh moments" where the wires show in a high flying debut act. These were most obvious on songs like George Harrison's "Something" and Willie Dixon's "I just Want to Make Love to You".

Overall though, Lost In Romance successfully achieved its objectives, presenting Lyn Stanley to a well-targeted international audiophile audience appreciative of both good material well-sung and the highest caliber sonics. The album was musical and sonic comfort food for an audience hungry for it and considering that Ms. Stanley was unknown not that long ago and is now well-known within the audiophile community and has sold to an appreciative audience around 10,000 vinyl copies of a fairly expensive double 45rpm package, that easily qualifies on all fronts as "mission accomplished".

For her all-important follow-up Ms. Stanley doesn't stray all that far from her original game plan though the album's concept is in far better focus. Potions collects fourteen songs, mostly from the non-rock side of the 1950s (plus one LP bonus track from a different decade dedicated to her mentor Paul T. Smith who passed away in June of 2013). Smith was an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, Mel Tormé and many other jazz vocal greats and he was also the musical director for "The Steve Allen Comedy Hour" ('smock! smock!).

The songs closest to rock'n'roll/R&B are covers of "Love Potion #9", Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" as well as of "The Thrill Is Gone", popularized by B.B. King and The Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night" . Stanley also covers "Cry Me a River", "Fly Me to the Moon", "Hey There" from "The Pajama Game" (popularized by Rosemary Clooney), "A Summer Place", "Misty", and "Teach Me Tonight".

As on her previous album Ms. Stanley is skillfully backed by top studio and gigging piano/bass/drum combos augmented with guitar or clarinet or sax with a percussionist occasionally added. The arrangements are models of clarity and economy and the "name brand" musicianship is impeccable. Among the players are drummer Joe LaBarbera (who played with Bill Evans), pianists Bill Cunliffe and Kenny Werner (who also produced the album) and tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard (who reminds me of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis cooing to Frank Sinatra on Live at the Sands).

The album opens with a "sassy" cha cha version of the familiar "Lullaby of Birdland", which is really atypical of the rest of the album. Most of the album is cooler and more swinging. But here's the thing: Ms. Stanley's vocalizing has taken flight compared to the last album. Her phrasing is far more assured and less pedestrian. She glides and soars with an ease and control only occasionally heard on the debut, taking unexpected turns and abrupt volume shifts. She lingers longer and moves from phrase to phrase more gracefully and with greater rhythmic and intonation agility . The occasional "moments of karaoke" that marred the debut are missing in action here. She's far more at ease.

It took guts to cover "Cry Me a River" and "Misty" among other classics long associated with one particular artist like Julie London is with "Cry Me a River." Ms. Stanley truly makes them her own on this album, whereas on the debut the best you could say about some of them was that she "had them covered". She's comfortable and that makes the listener comfortable, though on occasion her perfect diction jars. For instance on "Fly Me to The Moon" there's the phrase "In other words, hold my hand." Yes the words are "in other words" but who says them separately? It's always pronounced "another words" so to hear them separated out jars. She stops to hit hard the "T" in JupiTer and in "shooTing star" and in other places hits the "S" sibilant with too much emphasis. Sometimes the neatness and precision blocks the flow—but on this album I have to look hard to find things to criticize about Ms. Stanley's vocal performance.

While Ms. Stanley nimbly handles the uptempo numbers like the NOLA rhythm'd "After the Lights Go Down Low", she truly shines on the slower, more intimate ballads, a few of which were more problematic on the debut album. "You Don't Know Me" and "The Thrill Is Gone" are highlights as is "Teach Me Tonight".

That these are mostly pop tunes done in a "jazzy" style and not jazz standards works in favor of Ms. Stanley's artistry, which based on her first two albums is more pop/cabaret than jazz. That also accounts for her accessibility and her almost immediate popularity among the "sonically aware community".

Also contributing to her immediate success within this community was the production and sound on the previous album. It's even better here, again engineered and mixed by the great Al Schmitt. Backing tracks were recorded at Avatar in New York and Capitol in Hollywood with all vocals recorded in Hollywood at Capitol (using the same U47 used by Sinatra) or LAfx studio.

With the exception of the backing track on "The Party's Over" recorded using ProTools and "Love Potion #9", which is a hybrid backing track of analog tape and ProTools, all of this album was recorded and mixed to analog tape (including the tracks that have digital components). With Al Schmitt at the board recording to analog at great studios you'd expect superb sonics and super sonics are what you get, with Bernie Grundman mastering and pressing at RTI.

Regardless of your musical tastes—and no doubt some will find this overly "glossy" and mannered— I guaranty you that Potions is among the best sounding new records (or SACDs) you are likely to hear this year or next, or the year after that. The instrumental timbre and textures are utterly natural and effortless and transparency is "you are there". Ms. Stanley's voice is recorded with equal transparency, clarity and verisimilitude. Yes, it is still possible to produce recordings "like they used to". Credit Lyn Stanley here for putting her mouth where her money is and succeeding sonically and most importantly artistically. Potions takes her and the listener higher.

Music Direct Buy It Now

rshak47's picture

from Acoustic Sounds. Love this record almost (but not quite) as much as *Lost in Romance* - interpretations and sound quality are superb! I'm officially hooked on this wonderful artist and am eagerly awaiting her next release.

jmoray's picture

That you write such an alluring report on a record, both the music and the sound quality, and yet completely missed two individuals that must be more than a little bit responsible for this: When you have two heavy hitters like Bernie Grundman and Al Schmitt responsible for the mixing, engineering and mastering......You just KNOW the sound quality is going to be there in spades!
Thank you for this review. JUST ONE MORE RECORD I HAVE TO BUY TO SUPPORT MY HABIT (to say nothing of supporting the economy)

Michael Fremer's picture
You did not I!
Devil Doc's picture

I'll buy it just for the album cover. She does that 1940s Hollywood thing better than anyone.

Paul Boudreau's picture

I wasn't aware of this artist.

Speaking of Marshall Crenshaw, whom I'll see at The Birchmere in VA at the end of next month, his series of three-song vinyl EPs has reached five. The format has been one new song/one cover/one remake of an earlier song of his. Cool stuff.


Steelhead's picture

This album is absolutely superb and I just cannot imagine anyone listening to it not to be delighted.

The sonic quality is beyond reproach. It is up with the very best Sheffields, UHQR's and AP's I own.

She is just wonderful and a blast to chat with on email. I hope to catch her in concert and was jealous after seeing her on her site singing with that killer Genesis system that was playing Potions.

A very easy to recommend purchase.

Ptruce's picture

At the Newport show, Ms. Stanley revealed that her first album was done 24/192 digital. Was this also recorded in digital? Bought both albums as I agree, they sound great.

Ptruce's picture

Sorry, Michael - didn't see you section where you explain that most was done in analog.

Lyn Stanley's picture

I am grateful for this thorough review of my new album, Michael, and I will try to answer questions that come out of the comments to your report. This album started with a concept of recapturing what was a "golden age--1950s" of vinyl and major changes in the music industry by creating a tribute to analog tape recordings, but with an eye to the future. This album was recorded on 2 inch 24 track tape AND ProTools 192/32 bit at the same time, just in case the tape had any glitches and to protect the expensive sessions. As Michael states, 12 of the tracks are pure analog tape--through mixing and mastering. But, because the album is dedicated to my audiophile fans, and I could do it, I listened to a suggestion of offering two songs on the album recorded in ProTools 192/32bit and then mixing and mastering them in analog tape so comparisons in the quality could be made with all the extraneous variables consistent for the listener. I am pretty sure this is the first album to offer this kind of comparison in one album. A lot was learned by all involved with the project in terms of engineering. It was my hope that the nostalgia of this decade be reframed and recaptured in a new way through Potions [from the 50s] with songs that represented some of the significant timeless tunes in jazz/pop, blues and Broadway during that time.

vince's picture

I just listened to Potions (number 978) with a cocktail in my hand and a fire in the fireplace. Can't imagine a better way to be introduced to this excellent album. It reminds me of some of my favorite jazz records from the 50s. Great music, well performed. Only better than those records, in some ways, because Potions has an excellent stereo image, something those fifties LPs seldom offer.

I checked Ms Stanley's website to see if she will be playing a concert in the Bay Area soon. Sadly no.

I am very curious what Ms Stanley will do next. Count me among those who will be purchasing her next album, regardless of what musical territory she decides to visit. An idea, just in case she needs one ;) Make a live album with sonics on par with Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall, or to use a more modern and possibly more relevant reference, Krall, Live in Paris.

I hope this sparks a counter revolution in recording. I think I have heard quiet enough compressed and processed junk. More like this one, please!

Lyn Stanley's picture

Wanted to thank Vince for this great review along with the other comments. I can now tell you Potions is being used as an audiophile reference disc from many system designers. Knowing the attention to sound detail is paying off has been very rewarding to me. I spoke with my Mastering engineer Bernie Grundman for a while yesterday and he is very excited to see this album taking off. He told me he was an audiophile before he was an engineer. Thought that was an interesting fact to share. He is also helping me with my next album idea which will be a duet album--fashioned after a live performance per Vince's request--my vocal and one instrument on 9 or 10 songs. After that--thinking of a big band album.