Make no mistake — Audra McDonald has one of those sweet, theatrical voices that doesn’t wear on repeated listens.
In fact, her voice is divine. Clear, strong, practically flawless. It’s the voice of a professional.
Which is why it doesn’t quite work for Happy Songs, a collection of Depression-era music by the likes of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers.
McDonald is a veteran stage performer with a few Tony Awards under her belt, which means she’s had some training. (Some place called Julliard, wherever that is.)
On her previous solo album, How Glory Goes, McDonald sang individual songs from musicals without sacrificing their dramatic contexts. You didn’t need to know the whole story to get it, and she made sure you got it.
Somehow, that dramatic sensibility doesn’t translate on Happy Songs.
It’s not that she delivers a bad performance — quite frankly, it’s difficult to imagine she could. It’s not that she interprets these songs insensitively. She sings the hell out of them.
No — these songs need swing.
And swing isn’t something a classical training encourages.
It’s apparent right from the first track, “Ain’t It the Truth”. The song calls for a voice as rough as the muted trumpet blaring in the introduction, but McDonald just doesn’t have that kind of gravel.
“Beat My Dog” finds McDonald close to the kind of grit the album needs, but for the most part, the album is mismatch of message and messenger.
The lustre of McDonald’s voice, unfortunately, is not enough to bridge this disparity. In other words, her training got in the way of her interpretation.
Still, McDonald could sing a phone book and blah to the blah to the blah …
Even if Happy Songs doesn’t quite suite her, it’s still a setting nice enough for her to try.