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Julie Kelly: Kelly Sings Christy: Thou Swell

Suddenly, it seems, June is bustin’ out all over. As an unabashed fan of the mentholated O’Day-Christy-Connor vocal axis, I can think of few things sweeter than dual, yet fundamentally different, salutes to the misty Miss Christy. (Nods to O’Day and Connor will respectfully have to wait, since those two cool-school grads are still very much alive and humming).

If you prefer tribute albums that try their damnedest to replicate the precise sound and style of the honoree, then Stephanie Nakasian’s Lullaby in Rhythm is your better bet. Nakasian, as fine an imitator as she is an interpreter, does an uncanny job of replicating Christy’s singular (or so I thought) sandpaper-on-satin tremor. For added authenticity, she’s gone to incredible lengths to capture the fiery esprit of Pete Rugolo’s arrangements. No one sounded more carefree on an uptempo number or more dejectedly blue on a ballad than June, and Nakasian does a dandy job of exploring both sides of the curious Christy equation. Swingin’ easy on Bob Cooper’s gossamer “Gone for the Day,” she picks up the pace for a gleeful “Kissin’ Bug,” then digs in her heels for a galloping “I Want to Be Happy” that is, remarkably enough, even more joyful than Christy’s cork-popping original. The quieter moments are equally enticing, particularly a smoky “Interlude” and a supple, shadowy “Lost in a Summer Night.” Also included among the album’s 17 tracks is, of course, “Something Cool.” Wisely recognizing that Christy’s signature treatment could never be copied, Nakasian opts for a softer, less nakedly vulnerable reading, substituting the genteel neediness of Blanche DuBois for the Grand Guignol neuroticism of Baby Jane Hudson.

Taking an entirely different tack, Julie Kelly seems more eager to seize the spirit of Christy than to duplicate her actual sound. If, indeed, Thou Swell: Kelly Sings Christy had been titled Kelly Swings Standards, I would have been hard-pressed to recognize its reverential intent. Kelly’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” bounces to a peppy bossa nova beat, suggesting Margaret Whiting by way of a defogged Astrud Gilberto. Her boisterous “Thou Swell” echoes the barnstorming bravado of Annie Ross. Her “Lazy Afternoon”-one of the most astute I’ve heard-underscores the interminably gentle lyric with an edgy urgency that is tremendously enticing. On “Something Cool,” Kelly takes the high road with an icily sophisticated reading that favors sane regret over raving retrospection. None of it, apart from an eerily cognate “It’s So Peaceful in the Country,” is specifically reminiscent of Christy. That said, Kelly fills Thou Swell with strikingly original renditions of great songs-and isn’t that precisely how Christy shaped most, if not all, of her brilliant career?

Originally Published