Dawn Landes’ new album, Row, is to a certain extent a victim of the coronavirus. The soundtrack to a musical, it has been released without the show being staged. It was due to be premiered in summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, but like much else around us, the pandemic put the brakes on it.
This is a shame, because it means the album falls between two stools. It probably works best — well, even — if accompanied by something visual, but as standalone music it doesn’t quite click (which can happen with showtunes).
The musical is about Tori Murden McClure, who in 1999, on the second attempt, became the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic. (She has a history of this kind of stuff: She is also the first woman and first American to ski to the geographical South Pole.)
In the songs, Landes plays McClure, singing about why she is taking the dangerous journey, about the various physical and philosophical emotions in her way as she does so, about the past (her brother being bullied, her doctorate from Harvard), and the future (proposing to her husband by satellite phone in the middle of the ocean).
All good stuff — but this is a music review and not a theater critique. As an album alone it can be very confusing. The songs are a narrative, but without the visuals, the “book” is hard to follow, and a lot of the music does not stand up alone.
Why, you ask yourself, have we jumped from McClure steeling herself for the trials ahead — “Independent Spirit” and “Mount Everest” — to reminiscing about her vulnerable brother walking home from school in “(Strong as a) Sister”?
Ditto “Oh Amelia.” An otherwise pleasant duet with Amelia Earhart (sung by Brigid Kaelin), it is only explained as a hallucination in the liner notes, but the context would presumably be obvious if being watched on stage. And, lyrics aside, the three “Storm” songs fail to summon the pure terror that being stuck at sea can evoke, something that a stage set and effects might overcome.
This aside, Landes sings quite beautifully and there are a number of songs that stand out.
The aspirational “Independent Spirit” is one. Another is “Avinu Malkeinu, Star of the Sea,” a beautiful mix of the Hebrew prayer and praise for Stella Maris, the Christian Virgin Mary in her guise as saint of seafarers.
The title track, meanwhile, is a funky Motown-ish number in which McClure communes with her Muses — Tina Turner, Cher, and Dolly Parton (sung by Carly Johnson, Kimmet Cantwell, and Sheryl Rouse).
By way of “Proud Mary,” “I Got You Babe,” and “9 to 5,” they all agree that “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
There is also a promising country-ish love duet between McClure and husband-to-be Mac (sung by Will Oldham) — “Second Time Around Reprise” — but the demands of the “book” cut it far too short, just over a minute.
And there lies the problem. The songs are essentially written for a play and need that play to bring everything together. I would go to the play, but I am unlikely to play the album very often.