There’s leaning on the innuendo in a largely innocent song, and then there’s what Tracy Lynn Olivera has done with “Brand New Key” — and what Tracy Lynn Olivera has done with “Brand New Key” is take a bouncy ‘70s novelty hit and paste a bodacious ‘70s pornstache on it. I’d have rolled my eyes at the shameless obviousness of the whole business, but I was too busy blushing at how scandalously effective it was.
“Brand New Key,” as you may recall from Boogie Nights (if not from the actual ‘70s), is the one about the girl who’s got a brand new pair of old-skool roller skates and the boy who’s got the skate key she needs to tighten them over her shoes. Keys and locks being built the way they are, there’s always been a little built-in double-entendre to the lyrics, but Olivera, as sassy a songstress as any in the D.C. musical-theater firmament, is hardly content to leave the sex to the text. The bad behavior begins with a musical arrangement by Lenny Williams, with the man himself on louche piano and an all-too-knowing jazz trio to help out; it’s a slow hip-roller of a read that lets Olivera slip almost drowsily into the song. By the second phrase she’s bending pitches seductively; by the time she gets to the chorus and the word “I’ve,” she’s ready to let her voice slide over its register break with a lazy lasciviousness that makes Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” come off like a cold shower.
I make so much of “Brand New Key,” the second track on Olivera’s debut album, Because, because it’s a stylistic outlier in a collection largely built on more traditional ballads. Many of these she takes at face value: “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”, a graceful minor-key meditation on the nature of attraction from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, gets a no-frills rendition that shows off the lushness of the lady’s middle range and the intelligence and taste of her musical phrasing. Likewise the sweet, open-hearted waltz “When I Grow Too Old To Dream,” by the operetta titan Sigmund Romberg with lyrics by Hammerstein; Olivera and guest vocalist Steven Walker make simple, affectionate work of a song that could cloy in the wrong hands. And Cole Porter’s “So In Love,” from Kiss Me Kate, gets an unhurried, elegant outing, all long-spun melodic lines over the sleepy Latin rhythms Porter was so addicted to.
For the South Pacific favorite “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy,” which opens the album, the singer takes things more counterintuitively — slow and thoughtful, with a piano accompaniment moody enough to suggest that having fallen for the man in question might not be an ideal development. And she tackles less familiar fare, too: “So Many People,” an intriguingly bifurcated but melodically grateful song from the early Sondheim musical Saturday Night; “On My Way to You,” written for Maureen McGovern by French composer Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) with Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and “One Little Word,” a deft and urgent cabaret song from Adam Gwon, whose musical The Boy Detective Fails played at Arlington’s Signature Theatre a few years back. (That last ingratiating tune, I have to admit, has been stuck in my head for weeks.)
Olivera’s voice, which has always been one of the truest and least forced on D.C.’s musical stages, still has the freshness to sell something as guileless as “I Don’t Want to Live On The Moon,” an almost-too-cute Sesame Street tune about the adventure of travel and the lure of home — but also the size, the sway and the swagger to generate some heat on the Jimmy Dorsey standard “I’m Glad There Is You,” which follows it. (See above if there are still questions about the sexy, but let’s note that Williams’ groovetastic arrangement is once again responsible for some of the simmer.)
The title track? If you know it, it’s because you’re some sort of weirdly nerdy musical-theater completist — it was part of a Dr. Who-inspired space-rock extravaganza starring both Cliff Richard and Laurence Olivier (I am not making this up) that played London in the late ‘80s— or because you paid enough attention during the British Invasion to be familiar with the Dave Clark Five. But you probably don’t know it, which means this light, ukulele-driven reading (with Lawrence, again, on the uke and duet vocals) will be a charming introduction.
If that’s not idiosyncratic enough for you, skip back to the album’s real left-fielder: Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man,” complete with that big-haired boot-knocker’s winking lyrics about roping and riding tall and whatnot. It’s a genuinely oddball choice — not that there’s a particular theme or through-line to the album, which along with a few close-miked moments is one of my few reservations about Because. But hey, it’s breezy and bawdy, and, if nothing else, it’s confirmation that Olivera really can sell pretty much anything she wants to sing.
“I’m Glad There Is You”, Tracy’s studio session, recorded for her Kickstarter campaign.