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Monday, February 05, 2018

A Marvelous Party

From the CD Shelf Dept.: The admirable show- and movie-centric label DRG reissued a pair of Noël Coward albums back in 2003 – albums originally recorded in the 1950s and released on Columbia, but, as I wrote below, there was more to be heard, and it finally was here.


COVER ART ALONE attests to the journey these recordings have taken. Originally issued in the mid 1950s as two LPs, the first cover featured a suave, teacup-wielding Noël Coward on the Las Vegas desert; the second, created in the wake of the other’s success, relocates that image to Manhattan. Columbia later LP-issued the two as a gatefold set, with an older Coward pictured at “Firefly,” his Jamaica home; the first CD issue improbably pictured the 30s-era Coward.

The already truncated program was further shortened for a single CD. DRG now has issued the program on two CDs, both brief, with the original covers, and for the first time we’re able to hear the Las Vegas program as it was originally performed. Turns out the intro was faked and some of the songs were cut. DRG sent its engineers to the original tapes, and they’ve included all available material. Also, you’re finally hearing the whole thing in as decent sound as was possible to achieve.

As a studio recording, the NewYork set was as good as you’d get in the mid-50s, although it’s characteristically Columbia high-end harsh. The muddier Vegas recording requires a few moments of ear adjustment.

But what a treat to again hear Coward present the cream of his repertory with accompaniment far hipper than his old British recordings ever sported. A young Peter Matz was responsible, and the result, a half-century later, still doesn’t sound dated.

Yes, this is the same Noël Coward who wrote the plays “Private Lives” and “Blithe Spirit,” among many others, a man steeped in the world of operetta, a world he recreated in the words and music he wrote for original shows like “Conversation Piece” and “Bitter Sweet.” But his songwriting also took acerbic turns. “What’s Going to Happen to the Tots?” asks a song on the “New York” album, addressing the craze for eternal youth: “Rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye my darlings,/Mother requires a few more shots,/Does it amuse the tiny mites/To see their parents high as kites?/What’s, what’s, what’s going to happen to the tots?”

“I Like America” appropriately opens the New York set (“I’ve roamed the Spanish Main/Eaten sugar cane/But I never tasted cellophane/’Till I struck the U.S.A.”), and it includes a good balance between patter songs and ballads, as well as a medley of vintage Coward favorites.

The Las Vegas set is similarly chosen, with Coward at his most blistering as he navigates the prestissimo challenge of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and a complete version of “Nina.” And it turns out that the version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” which he wittily re-lyricked, has had a McCarthy-era elision for all these years. It’s now intact, and all the more enjoyable for it.

Noël Coward
At Las Vegas • In New York
DRG Records

Metroland Magazine, 12 June 2003

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