Note: This album review is a guest post by Nicole McCray.
Reinventing musical theater in a new and exciting genre: Eleri Ward released her second album, Keep a Tender Distance, of folk versions of the late Stephen Sondheim’s songs on September 16. It follows the release of her album from last year entitled A Perfect Little Death.
The album includes songs from famous shows, including Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, and Assassins. Ellis Ludwig-Leone coordinates the string arrangements you hear, and Ward produced the album alongside Allen Tate.
Eleri Ward - Background
Ward was a conservatory-trained singer who grew up around musical theater. Her inspiration includes the mellow-sounding Sufjan Stevens, who is most famous for his album Illinois in 2005.
Things changed the day she picked up a friend’s guitar and recorded her version of “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music, and then later, “Johanna (Reprise)” from Sweeney Todd. Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight reached out to her, and soon, she created more arrangements and started her first solo album.
From the First to the Second
Eleri Ward has accumulated a significant following with her acoustic takes on Into The Woods’ “No One Is Alone” and Company’s “Another Hundred People.” She even received approval from the late Sondheim himself before his passing. She is now set to make her Off-Broadway debut in Only Gold this fall.
It’s insightful and innovative, taking these well-known show tunes and putting her own creative spin on them. She stated in a recent interview, “Making this second album has been entirely different than the first in many ways,” going on to say that with the first album, she did all of the work completely solo. She had her songs mixed and mastered by a friend.
With Keep a Tender Distance, She had ideas and arrangements already set. However, she went into the studio session and, working with Allen Tate, was able to develop new ideas and more clarity for the direction of her music, this time for the latest release.
She says, “I went into recording this album with a lot of open space, not wanting to confine myself into any set arrangement, and that allowed for these collaborations to really bring everything to the next level.”
Broadway Turns Folk
The music creators and sound engineers at Track Club Music say that Ward has really “broken new ground” in developing these kinds of covers of classic musical theater. She has opened up a way for the spectacle of Broadway songs to have a more simplistic, loving tone.
Sondheim has been long discussed as one of, if not THE greatest musical theater songwriters. Ward takes those character songs with just an acoustic guitar in hand, bringing heart and soul into the works. It’s more than just folk music; her arrangements scream a new genre altogether, bringing more depth to the songs.
She recorded A Perfect Little Death during the coronavirus pandemic, but with Keep a Tender Distance, she took a more significant step forward. There are more instruments and backup vocals (mostly Ward herself), and you can hear her technique is more precise and on point.
The best part about the music is that she still brings out the intention for the songs, almost in a new light. Reimagining a classic piece and mixing it to make a new, fresh song can be risky. Ward makes it seem easy by creating complex arrangements with a lot of thought, making creative strides to ensure that the music still evokes true emotions and feelings to engage the listener.
One such song in particular, “Stay With Me,” from Into the Woods, already had a haunting connotation associated with the character singing it from the show. Ward puts a new perspective on the song, making it sound more like a plea for love rather than a parent convincing a child not to go. But, the song still maintains its haunting aura with such a sad, lost quality that Ward brings with such creativity.
Her voice is soft, with a lilt that almost gives some of the music a yodel-like quality. It goes beyond just the traditional folk genre; with enticing guitar plucking tagged with these vocals, it’s hard to resist. Once you hear her opening song on the album (“Merrily We Roll Along”), you can’t wait to listen to the rest.
The songs take on a more soulful sad quality rather than the boisterous horns in the original cast recordings from Sondheim. These songs all provide a deeper emotional connection, as brought forth by this truly gifted, genuine indie singer.
Listen to Eleri Ward's 'Keep a Tender Distance' at the link below.