Before I get to talking about Marianne Faithfull’s new album, a brief homage:
I LOVE Marianne Faithfull. She was the first (and basically, only) famous person that I ever met. I was but a wee lad and my father took me to her book signing at a Border’s in Rockville, MD (come to think of it, what was she doing at that store?) OK, Wikipedia confirms that her memoir was published in ’94, which would mean I was 10 or 11 years old at the time I got to meet her. I remember being totally shocked when she opened her mouth to speak and thinking that she must have been near death. I also remember her smelling very strongly of cigarettes.
Ah how I have come to savor that death-rattled voice of hers! My good friend El Bensòn likened it to a zombie (“Mick, get out of bed, I’m hungry for the brains of Keith Richards!!”) I think it’s as expressive an instrument as you can get and it sounds so terribly lived-in.
In all honesty, I don’t know too much about Marianne’s early career. I know she was an English light folk singer early in her career and then transitioned to rock/pop starting around the time of her liaison with Mick Jagger. Then, she lived, and lived like no one else since. She released a huge string of studio albums, got addicted to heroine and cocaine, and lived on the streets.
But, was she having fun?
Of course she was. Also of note:
We find it interesting too, Marianne!
My real love and appreciation of Marianne comes from a little known crevice of her career: the music of Kurt Weill. It seems that her mother was a ballerina and collaborated with Weill in Berlin during the ’30s and Marianne took up her late mother’s mantle.
Marianne’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s ballet chanté is, for me, one of the finest interpretations of any piece on record. Dennis Russell Davies and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (an under-appreciated ensemble if ever there was one) support Marianne in every move, breathing full life and intensity into this symphonic score. Just listen:
You like how precise those winds are? How much energy in the strings? And then how they can cool down to Marianne’s ironic delivery of “If you take offense at injustice…” ? Fo sho.
The whole piece is just as good, and the bonus tracks on this album is where I stole my much celebrated rendition of “The Pirate Jenny” from (using Frank McGuiness’s incomparable translation of the Threepenny Opera).
Then, there’s 20th Century Blues, in which Marianne takes Weill as a point of departure and branches out into Noël Coward, Friedrich Holländer and others. In so doing, she invites comparison with the great Dietrich, so let’s see what we’ve got:
I’m not sure if you could find two more interesting renditions of any song to compare — they’re both so genuine, so perfect and yet so different. I love how Marlene sings “they had a touch” pushing just a little towards the high note on “touch”, delivering it with the perfect staccato and without interrupting the phrase. But when you hear Marianne sing, “you are in love with paaain,” you can’t help but believe it.
Interesting too is how these ladies differ in their placement of “slightly used”/”second hand”. Marianne’s placement of the notes after the downbeat of each new phrase works better for me — it makes them sound “slightly used” — thrown away and forgotten about.
(Side note: I am convinced that these kinds of decisions about rhythmic placement are, in actuality, what jazz and pop musicians are referring to when they speak of “phrasing” — a very different notion than in the classical world.)
I guess I should actually mention the album that I set out to discuss at the top of this post. “Easy Come, Easy Go” is something of a rarity (if not a downright oddity): a new studio album of “pop” songs with new instrumental arrangements. Maybe I’m just not usually in the market for such things, but I really thought stuff like that didn’t still happen. And the arrangements – how utterly bizarre. They are the work of three gentlemen: Steve Weisberg, Steve Bernstein and Greg Cohen. I believe they also have an active Bar Mitzvah band.
The array of instruments includes such oddities as the sarrusophone and the alto horn:
Each and every song seems to inhabit a totally different world (or sometimes multiple universes simultaneously). I certainly applaud these artists’ versatility. Of course, certain worlds seem to work better than others. My favorite tracks include: “Down From Dover” (D. Parton), “Solitude” (D. Ellington), “The Crane Wife 3” (C. Meloy), “Children of Stone” (Espers), and “Dear God Please Help Me” (Morrissey).
Although, I do have some questions:
1) Why use Rufus Wainright of all people as a back-up singer? In fact, his voice is almost so produced that it just becomes an instrument:
Wouldn’t it be nice to hear him take a verse every now and then? I mean, he’s quite an artist in his own right, even if the Met won’t take his opera…
2) What exactly is going on with the middle of “Ooh Baby Baby”? The mood starts out just right:
with those digitized keyboard arpeggios, it half sounds like Nico Muhly-does a porn score. Or a VicLowenthal warmonization.
Then, beautiful harmonies between Marianne and Antony in the release:
And then, what the hell is this??
It kind of comes out of nowhere. The more I listen to it, the more I kind of like it, but it comes as a jarring, rather than a desired surprise every time. And Antony, all I can say is, we hardly knew you had it in ya’!
The last thing I’ll say about this album is that it actually allowed me to enjoy a Randy Newman song for the very first time in my life (“In Germany Before the War”). Kudos to Mr. Cohen on that one.
A very strange album overall, and particularly as a follow-up to 2003’s “Before the Poison”, a much more straight ahead rock/pop album, with plenty of nuance.
Final thought: who but AbFab could come up with more perfect casting than this?