Eugene Friesen,
Arms Around You
(Living Music, 1989)

Though I may be wrong, the musical sub-genre of the mumbling/singing cellist may have started with David Darling of the early Paul Winter Consort, who may himself have been inspired by Slam Stewart, the great swing bassist who would scat along with his solos. Eugene Friesen, the latest of the singing cellists, has turned what was a delightful quirk in Stewart and a grating but occasionally dramatic device of Darling's fiery playing into just one more facet of aural wallpaper.

Friesen's 1989 album, Arms Around You, is inoffensive and almost totally uninvolving, music that could be played in the background at any social event, even a funeral, and be scarcely noticed. Synthesizer-rich, full of little rhythmic shuffles that play just below the surface, and laden with echoey voices, this album admittedly succeeds in becoming what it sets out to be, but its sights are set way too low for any but the most willing listener.

"Truffles," which starts the album, might just as well be called "Trifles." It sounds like a TV sitcom theme, pleasant enough but instantly forgettable. The title track is a descent into new age hell, with "Arms Around You" repeated over and over in Friesen's breathy wisp of a voice. I quote one other example of the lyrics: "When you can love it is true, / The global village is you." Ohhh-kay.

"Whitewater" is next, and is true to its title. It's like watching water rush by, with no destination, no highs or lows. Musically, it's just uninspired noodling over a basic riff until the musicians apparently get tired of playing. A very lovely melody starts off "Zoe," but then Friesen starts singing about his daughter, though he can't be blamed for these cliched lyrics, which include such banalities as "I love you more than I can ever tell." You've heard it all before. The tune would have been more effective as a straight instrumental, as it's one of the few melodies on the album that's at all interesting.

"Madrigal" features Glen Velez's predictable percussion tinkling and twinkling throughout this collection of musical lines that interweave to no ultimate purpose before finally fading out. The simplicity of "Remembering You" is a blessed relief from its predecessors. There's a nice strong cello theme with solid piano accompaniment -- no tricks, no rhythm, so meandering solos, no synthesizer -- but we learn it was too good to be true. A synthesizer finally comes in, and it sounds like Friesen is singing again. Ah well, it was nice while it lasted. "Nuns in Cuba" starts off equally well, with a hot little rhythm, but it isn't long before the cellist starts "singing" again. Still, this track shows some fire sadly missing from the rest of the CD.

After this little spark, the last two tracks revert to type. "Night Glider" is more musical impressionism, depicting something (you guessed it) gliding at night, and it isn't too long before the synthesizers creak in. I suspect that so many new age musicians bring in synthesizers halfway through numbers because the actual musical content is so weak that one can't improvise effectively at any length (or maybe can't improvise effectively, period), and the synthesizer is an effortless way to vary the sound. The album ends with "River Music," and yes, of course, it represents a flowing river, in stark contrast to the other flowing river of "Whitewater." More interweaving lines, no end, no beginning, little interest.

Friesen gets lovely tones out of the cello, but it's just not enough. In most of these tunes, there's no there there. It's pleasant enough, it's inoffensive, and in that respect it's decent music. But there's no real fire, no feeling deeper than a greeting card. If you're a fan of new age music or the aptly named "smooth jazz," you might like this album. It's placid and user-friendly, and there's nothing here to bother you. But if you like to listen with your ears wide open, you're bound to be disappointed.

[ by Chet Williamson ]