The two albums mentioned in the title were those done under the aegis of Michael Dunford, with the name of 'Michael Dunford's Renaissance'. As such they could be considered to be in-between projects while Renaissance was 'on hiatus'. Keep this in mind: if this was a hiatus, then these set up what one hears on the latest and last studio album 'Tuscany'
Now as mentioned in the header and to quote baseball great-Mr Cub, Ernie Banks....'LET'S PLAY TWO!!!!'
Some of you may be asking: 'Why review Ocean Gypsy? After all this was an offshoot or even what would be called 'stretching the brand'. Ok, that may be a valid thought...and the band is called 'Michael Dunford's Renaissance', so this may actually be a brand extension. However, it is apparent that once you hear the opening measures of 'Ocean Gypsy', this was a little more than just a stretch.
Let's start out with the fact that Annie is not on vocals, but a young woman named Stephanie Adlington. From what I remember reading of her bio, she had done some work with various different pop groups as backup and was also involved with Mickey during the days he was writing the score for a musical version of 'Sheherazade' [which has been tabled due to a lack of investors and other items]. Whichever way that she had become associated with Mickey, this was a coup. In that her vocals now adds a different slant to some old Renaissance classics.
'Ocean Gypsy' leads off the disc and it is more direct so to speak than the original [or the version from the Carnegie Hall sessions]. The orchestra helps this become a more dramatic reading, which to these ears was nice in that this version, as well as the original are two sides of the same coin. And keep in mind...this is the opening track...
[Thinking about] 'Things I Don't Undertand' is on here in a shortened form. That being part 2, and Stephanie's voice shows more of her range here.You could see both her and Annie harmonizing on this...and even though the lyrics may sound like something from a post Woodstock era, it is still breathtaking [want this to be even more so? Turn up the volume on the headphones and you will hear what I mean]
The next track 'The Young Prince and the Princess' is another excerpt from Sherherazade and while it sounds different with different vocals, the spirit of the original is the same. Same attention to the details.
Another Ren classic that benefits from a new interpretation is 'Carpet of The Sun'. A slightly different orchestra chart and the new vocals compliment Betty's lyrics. This is one of two from 'Ashes are Buring'....the second of which is one that I sometimes cry over.
'At The Harbor' , the second from the 'Ashes' set, has never sounded better, which is not to say that they original or any live version is bad by comparison. Far from it...this one with a full orchestra and flourishes of flutes has brought tears to my eyes, if due to the overall beauty of the song. Stephanie again shows how her voice works with material that is not as well known in a live setting or not in rotation airplay wise...which is to say this is fantastic.
'I Think Of You' on this disc plays as just a very simple lovesong. An amazingly pretty lovesong. [Think about playing this at a wedding alongside 'And You and I' by Yes and you would get the idea]. Plus these lyrics would make for a rather interesting love poem as well.
We now come to the last three songs on this CD, two of which seem to be from sessions related to Sheherazade: 'Star of the Show' and 'The Great Highway'. They bookend 'Trip to The Fair', which in this collection sounds just as jazzy as the original. The bridge/solo on this is not done on percussion but with a reed instrument, probably a sax or cor anglais. As for the bookend pieces previously mentioned, those two show that in a post 'Camera Camera' era, Betty's lyrics have a little more of a romantic urgency. Which leads by that little segue to.......'Trip To The Fair' a compilation CD.
Yes this is a combination of the best material from not just 'Ocean Gypsy' but also ' The Other Woman'. It should be noted that the latter of the two was more commercial in its sound, however this does not diminish the quality or the musicianship. Far from it...
The highlights in addition to several of the songs from 'Ocean Gypsy' are a reworking of 'Dreammaker' called 'Love Lies, Love Dies'. same tune, just different lyrics which distance it from the original...'Deja Vu' which rocks. Close your eyes and imagine this being played during the tours of the 'Camera Camera' days or even 'Time-Line'. The lyrics are amazing plus there one hears what seems to be Mickey taking another rare electric guitar solo.
Another one to give a good listen to is 'The Other Woman' which is the title track of that aforementioned disc. This one is just stirring...Stephanie's vocals over electric piano, piano, drums, bass and guitar. But it it those lyrics that are just amazing. There may be some commercial comparisons that can be made [think Sade at her best and you will see what I mean], but not many would be in the same ballpark.
'Don't Talk' rocks as well....and it would not be out of place on the air these days. 'So Blase' is cool too and would seem to be the other side of the coin for 'Deja Vu'...'Lock in On Love' as well. Why no one had picked up on any of these for airplay is beyond me.
Now we come to a bonus of sorts...a reinterpretation of 'Northern Lights'...with an orchestra. Yes, you read that right. While there are several versions which do exist, this one is refershing in that now we can hear how this would work with additional musicans playing along. [Imagine here too, if you will this being done on 'A Song For All Seasons' with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra].
The album closes out with 'Star of The Show' and 'Somewhere West of Here' The latter of this has a little of everything: lyrics that speak of romantic longing and urgency, Stephanie's soaring vocals and a bridge/solo that can bring back memories of the one from 'Raja Khan' from 'Prologue'. Yours truly has been seen rocking out to this in the store because it is well, just incredibly cool.
Now if one wants to introduce their friends to a different take on Ren's classic material or show them what Mickey can do as a bandleader with a different vocalist or even show them a relatively unknown singer in Stephanie Adlington give them these to listen to. Tell that person to just give a listen, close the eyes and open the ears to some music, that is as amazing in its complexity and diversity as what Renaissance would do on album and in concert.