Mary McCandless,
Lipstick Legend
(independent, 2004)

The reality of show business is this: young and talentless shams (whose last names frequently end in Simpson) shimmy and lip-sync their way to fame and riches while truly gifted interpreters of songs who perform intelligently and gracefully for adults are all too often lost and ignored by a public whose average musical IQ is constantly diminishing from idiot level to drool-bucket.

Sermon over. You can help raise the general average by listening to the new CD by Toronto theatre and cabaret diva Mary McCandless. Her latest self-produced effort consists of 15 tracks, some standards, some new, and all done with impeccable skill and taste. With minimal yet effective backup, McCandless weaves a vocal spell that will keep lovers of classic female vocals delighted from start to finish.

The first track is a medley of "When I Fall In Love" and the lesser-known but brilliantly witty "Not Exactly Paris," in which "Kisses and linguini/Set to Mercer and Mancini" are part of the formula. It's a perfect vehicle to show how McCandless acts her songs rather than merely goes through the musical motions. Jane Oliver's "Pretty Girl" is one of those songs that simultaneously makes you smile and makes you sad, and it receives a perfect reading here.

"Have You Got Any Castles, Baby," is an old Dick Whiting/Johnny Mercer song that I recall from an old Warner Brothers cartoon. It's got dandy vintage lyrics ("Weismuller crawl"), and it's fun to hear it performed so precisely, every clever bon mot standing out. Harry Lewis plays piano on his own composition, "If I Could Be," a simple but lovely ballad to which "Fingernails" provides a sharp contrast. It's a fittingly sharp little story-song that McCandless does breathlessly well. Two songs by Canadians Bob Ashley and Nancy Phillips follow: "If I Were Wise" and "Exit." The former is a sophisticated torch song, the other the funniest and briefest farewell song on record. Both show off different aspects of McCandless's vocal talents.

She gets a vocal trio and ukulele backup on the delicious "Chocolate," a song in which the singers' devotion to the dark treat becomes almost erotically hilarious. There are more laughs to be had with "Always a Bridesmaid," a honky-tonk hoot from the cult musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Things get more serious with Harry Lewis and Jeffrey Johnston's "Look at Me," a beautiful and straightforward anthem of desire. "Everybody Says Don't" is next, and McCandless's crisp enunciation and flawless pitch make the difficult Sondheim classic her own.

The final four songs seem to be more personal to the singer, making up a thematic suite. "You Walk With Me," from The Full Monty, is sung as a duet with her partner of 10 years, Jo Braithwaite, and the two women's voices blend in a serene beauty. The sublime "Everything Possible" is a lullaby by Fred Small in which a child is told, "You can be anybody that you want to be/You can love whomever you will./You can travel any country where your heart leads/And know I will love you still." It's an affecting ballad of love and tolerance, and McCandless delivers it with a sweet serenity that's genuinely touching. The Toronto Men's Chorus provides subtle backup on David Friedman's "We Can Be Kind," an anthem that provides a welcome antidote to the "Me First" culture that seems to be pandemic today. The last track is a heartfelt tribute to McCandless's adopted country of Canada, "The Maple Leaf Forever," and its stripped-down arrangement of voice and piano provides a fitting conclusion to this portrait of a performer who should be a cabaret legend.

Mary McCandless's voice has a blend of purity, clarity and emotionalism that is seen only in the highest echelons of popular vocalists. Add to this her consummate choice of material that is not only vocally but soulfully right for her, and you have an album that deserves to be on everyone's short shelf of female singers. The CD is available at her website, and the proceeds benefit the Canadian Feed the Children Foundation.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 5 March 2005

[ visit the artist's website ]