Ooh Baby Baby: Marianne Faithfull’s new album

09Apr09

(David writing)

It was fairly audacious in 1987 for Marianne Faithfull and producer Hal Willner to put together blues and rock old and new with items from the Great American Songbook (at least one of which, thanks to Billie Holiday, also counted as an old blues) on Strange Weather. As a 20-year-old grungy slacker (before either term was used to define a generation — by the time they were I’d cut my hair (for the moment) and was pulling a salary by being surrounded by middle-aged women and 8 -year-olds) , I was pretty startled to find myself totally cowed by a 1931 copyright  called “Penthouse Serenade” that was totally and unapologetically bathing in luxury with the world going on somewhere down below.)  

Warning: The next graf is a parent(hetic)al statement of limited interest to non-parents.

(And after hearing me play it once, my daughter, at 3, requested it so many times it was on the first CDR I made her, along with Ramones’ “I Wanted Everything” and some others I’ve forgotten. I’m sure she identified with the Ramones’ title concept, assume she didn’t make the connection between both songs’ materialism, and hoped at the time that both would distract her sufficiently from the Moldy Peaches’ “Who’s Got the Crack,” which I did not want her pre-school teacher begging us to stop teaching to her classmates.)

       As many years after that as that one was after “As Tears Go By,” their new Easy Come Easy Go can’t possibly have that effect even if the arrangements and song choices are arguably even more audacious. Both the rock and cabaret worlds they both straddle are a lot more elastic (read: anything goes) now. And OK, I’m not 20 anymore and I’ve delightedly swallowed-whole at least three boxed set pop/whatever compilations that date back to the 1920s, 1900’s, 1890s.  So on paper, it’s no big deal (at the behest of a NYTimes review, I recently tried a Dylan covers album by one Barb Jungr, a self-described cabaret singer who understands Dylan (fuck it, music) less than I’m Not Here director Todd Haynes, and don’t ask me for details because I couldn’t finish it and know I’m not the only one) .  But before I even get to what works great on Easy Come Easy Go, let me talk about the sound. Not so much the work of the four arrangers/conductors (best: Steven Bernstein) and how distinctive nearly every track is while allowing for flow in the Great Album Tradition, but the sound of the singer. Thirty years ago (I’ve read — I was 12 and likely would have recoiled from, or mocked, Broken English if I’d heard it then, of which there was no chance) Faithfull made a big impact, not just with the harsh songs she dug deep into but with her throat. Not just that she’d started making pretty (if stately and chilly) pop and was now making ugly (if professionally played) synth-punk, but that her ravaged voice and what it implied said something about aging and the combined vulnerability and persistence of women that rock had never tried to before. And has little since.  Leaving pre-rock like Billie Holiday and, I don’t know, Marlene Dietrich, for someone who knows what they’re talking about (not just what they like) , I can think of Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (who started out ragged anyway as my wife notes, and have never played the straightforward sufferer (or straightforward anything?)).  At her age-45 comeback Tina Turner sounded even more ravaged than she did at 25 or 30 and one hell of a profound straightforward-sufferer backstory, but mostly glossed it on record with what-don’t-kill-ya (and get-that-behind-me) because she still wanted to be queen. At her age-40 breakthrough Bonnie Raitt, with a more typical addiction and semi-success backstory,  projected a still-got-it because she still did and somehow didn’t sound much wearier than she did at 21.  But Faithfull was all of 32 when she made Broken English and no one has truly inhabited that voice since. Few would have the justification — Faithfull’s backstory was pretty impressive itself. But fewer would have the talent to bring it off or the guts/skewed take on vanity to try. So thirty years after 32 (in 1979, no one would have believed she was a year younger than Debbie Harry if Harry had ever let it slip), she doesn’t sound too much more ravaged or weary, and sounds virtually identical to how she sounded on Strange Weather at 40.  She’s finally starting to act her age, and if you think that means I think 62 is impossibly ancient, this album makes me think that at 85 she could sound like Alberta Hunter did on the stunning and vital Amtrak Blues in 1980 — something that never occured to me when I enjoyed Willie Nelson’s Spirit (1996, age 63), John Prine’s Fair & Square (‘05, 59), or for that matter Bob Dylan’s Modern Times (’06, 65, and watch this space and thousands of others for how his new one shakes out), not to mention Neil Young’s just-out Fork in the Road, (’09, 63, which on one listen makes me wonder if he’ll ever make another really good one). Granted, when Lou Reed made the sorely underrated Ecstasy  (’00, 58), I had hopes he could keep doing that at 75, but in 9 years his one studio album has been an Edgar Allen Poe tribute  whose sole highlight is sung by (no really) Steve Buscemi. I should say something, I guess, about long-gone Faithfull paramour L. Cohen, and maybe  longtime Reed paramour L. Anderson, but I can’t think of what exactly.

      So take these aged triumphs where they come, and this is one. Four recent altrock songs by youngish songwriters (the Neko Case song disappears gracefully under Faithfull’s vocal and Willner’s anomalously uptempo arrangement, and if I’d never heard of Espers before I still don’t have any sense of them after several listenings to an 8-minute recording that Faithfull –with a surprising lot of help from Rufus Wainwright –just barely saves, but “The Crane Wife 3” convinces me that the Decembrists’ Colin Meloy can write some and that Nick Cave can sing some) plus  this-decade work by two old-timers that’s well-picked enough for me not to suspect they’re just generational tokens (Eno’s kinda uplifting and awestruck, Morrissey’s desperate and moving) and bookended by two late ’60s country songs of varying quality, “Sing Me Back Home,” which she earns partly because she knows she can’t take it from Merle Haggard even with Keith Richards’ help, and “Down from Dover,” its helpless fatalism enough to get it on Best of Dolly Parton in 1970 even though its single-mom miscarriage kept it from being released as a single, and to the extent it works. And then, with an inconvenient aside to the two minutes of “The Phoenix” (’70s-vintage songwriter Judee Sill remains but a name to me , but I am convinced Sean Lennon can sing some, which makes me realize I completely forgot Sean’s mom’s Seasons of Glass  — talk about your ravaged voice with backstory, which I guess brings us to Hole’s Live Through This, which…oh well, whatever, nevermind), we get to the four tracks that make me give the benefit of doubt to the rest — convince me that they’ve earned their sometimes too-slow pace and make me forgive if not forget the several shortfalls or gaffes on the lyric sheet I wish were included.  “In Germany Before the War” turns what sounded like a demo when it was on Randy Newman’s weakest album into “September Song,”  which not even Randy suspected it of being at the time (though I’d love to hear him try to write a whole album for Faithfull right now).  She does with Holiday’s (and Ellington’s) “Solitude” more or less what you’d hope — more or less what she did with Holiday’s (and Kern’s) “Yesterdays” on Strange Weather, and great to hear again. The 8-minute take on a Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ oldie (see post title) takes ridiculous risks, starting with the duration, and getting to tempo shifts long after Antony’s raised his garish head (I’d say he had a voice only an opera fan could love except that my wife, who wouldn’t want to do without either stripped-down rock & roll or opera, cringed and grimaced — while driving — when she first heard him), all in the service of a pledge of adoration that may never seem so simple again. And the Bessie-Smith-originated title track, matches the sex and humor of the lyric and Faithfull’s vocal with one of the funkiest (suggesting pheremones, I mean, not James Brown) horn parts I’ve ever heard, and what the hell is a sarrusophone anyway?

Inspirational credit in booklet which is admittedly funnier before you remember that it can’t be aimed at anyone reading said booklet: “This cd, album, legal or illegal download was produced by….”. And it’s worth noting that despite being under the UMG (UghMyGod?) banner, the FBI logo is missing from the back cover).

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