By Marilyn Lester
The vocal-instrumental duo, Branden & James, have released their debut album, Chasing Dreams, a collection of fastidiously curated tunes high on the gold standard of enjoyment. Branden James, an operatic tenor and James Clark, a virtuoso of the cello, simply make beautiful music together (they are married, in “real life”). The combination works by default since the cello, played in the bass clef, adds body and depth to most compositions. But beyond this fact, Clark’s mastery of his instrument, makes the most of its natural ability to harmonize perfectly with the clear bright vocal tones of James. The two are backed on the album by an array of other instrumental sounds, provided by drummer Herman Cambre, guitarist Tom Lodewyckx and the strings of the Budapest Art Orchestra (group known for the wide repertoire of genres they adeptly play), Conducted by Peter Petsik. Piano, keyboards, percussion and programming are the work of Clark and Patrick Hamilton, who also arranged and produced the album.
Chasing Dreams is akin to the class of albums produced for operatic/classical singers who also perform pop tunes––Sarah Brightman readily comes to mind. In fact, “Found And Completed” (Amy Westbrook and Steven Westbrook) is very evocative of the theater piece that put Brightman on the map, The Phantom of the Opera, composed by her then husband Andrew Lloyd Webber. And like Brightman’s recordings, as well as those by Andrea Bocelli, Il DIvo and others, the result is a big, lush, artful sound. To this arranger Hamilton adds buckets of drama, which works to advantage, but can also be overmuch without some pullback. Dialing the lavishness down on a few more tracks would have created a more perfect balance between the boffo and the deeply satisfying quieter works. The last two tracks on the album are such tunes. “Dancing on My Own” (Patrik Berger and Robin Carlsson) is a melancholy song delivered with subtle sensitivity, while the hopeful ballad “You Belong” (Branden James, Jess Godwin and Neil Aitken) beautifully showcases James’ tone and technique, with impeccable phrasing.
Another danger of big, lavish arrangements is the loss of Clark as an outstanding solo cellist. Two numbers, “Vincent” (Don McLean) and “Vinceremo” (Allan Dennis Rich, Jud J. Friedman, Marco Marinangeli and Harry Mikael Sommerdahl) are among selections that open with a few delightful but fleeting bars of Clark’s cello. The latter number also shows James’ vocal range and ability to be powerfully robust. Clark’s abilities shine most brightly and with more opportunity in “Somewhere Only We Know” (Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes). A highlight of the album is Ed Sheeran’s hit, “Perfect Symphony,” (Anna Rusconi, Ed Sheeran, Marco Guazzone and Matthew Sheeran) featuring Shoshana Bean. The collaboration is a splendid tapestry of musicality (sung both in English and Italian) with Bean’s soulful interpretation weaving in and out of James’ solos, plus perfect harmonization when the pair sing as a duet. Throughout this vocal glory is Clark’s cello, providing another thread of the weave, tying the performances together in an immensely rewarding whole. Overall, Chasing Dreams is 12 tracks of exhilarating music, executed with passion, love and talent. The album is available for download, including on the duo’s website, brandenjames.com, as well as for listening on several streaming platforms.