Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Force of Nature

Grace Jones - Hurricane (Wall of Sound/PIAS, 2008)

I can’t help feeling that the positive but reserved reviews meted out to this album have somewhat underrated the potency of Grace Jones’ comeback to proper star status (which is of course the only place a theatrical exhibitionist of her calibre would feel comfortable). Some have written it off as a throwback to the sleek reggae-infused sound of her glorious Compass Point period. To some extent it is, not least because it features the considerable rhythm section talents of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. But if this is a retrogressive step, it is more important for what it represents in practical terms. ‘Hurricane’ is very much a return to a confident and clear identity – Grace as the archetypal art-performer.

In light of having watched Terence Davies’ superb film ‘Of Time and The City’ at the weekend (more on that later), my girlfriend and I had an interesting discussion about dichotomies in popular music. Davies provocatively and spitefully dismisses The Beatles as having been ‘like a provincial firm of solicitors’. This got us considering whether The Beatles had really been untouchable innovators (the one pop band, it’s acceptable for the classical elite to appreciate, arguably now joined by Radiohead) or whether they had simply been among the first pure pop stars. I posited the claim that the divisions between ‘pop’ personalities and creative adventurers were perhaps non-existent then and certainly not as firmly entrenched as they are now. Artists like Grace Jones, although very much more performer than musician (indeed, producers of her early disco tracks bemoaned her inability to pitch a note), did much to challenge the assumed divides between entertainment and art that became starker in the 70s and 80s. She has always been able to combine musical excitement, particularly through intelligent interpretations (her versions of ‘Private Life’, ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Love is the Drug’ are all very much her own) with as many costume changes as she has songs.

It’s great that the faith of the Wall of Sound label has enabled her to put this all together in front of substantial audiences again. With ‘Hurricane’, she has more than repaid their faith. The main reason I think this record is more than merely a regurgitation of ideas she already expressed concisely on classic albums such as ‘Nightclubbing’ is that her personal stamp is more clearly felt here than on any of her previous works. She had a hand in writing all the tracks (there are no cover versions this time) and some of them put her own life in the frame very much for the first time.

Sometimes, in doing this, she treads a fine line between the confessional and the sentimental. ‘I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)’ manages to stay just on the right side, largely because of its hypnotic dubby accompaniment and because Jones’ vocal steers admirably clear of histrionics. Even better though is the strident ‘Williams’ Blood’, a gospel song written in collaboration with Wendy and Lisa that details Jones’ rejection of her father’s religious path (although the album is dedicated to him) and embracing of talents and traits inherited from her mother.

Those surprised and unnerved by this candid vulnerability might find more familiar solace in the likes of ‘Corporate Cannibal’ and the opening ‘This Is…’, where scary Grace is very much in full effect. The latter is little more than a list song, but the charismatic and icy delivery elevates it into something both teasing and threatening. ‘Corporate Cannibal’ is an assault on consumer and media capitalism delivered with raspy relish and perhaps appropriate in light of the current financial situation. It doesn’t exactly sound staggeringly new (indeed, its industrial clamour would have placed it quite comfortably on Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’, an album released eleven years ago) but it does sound appropriately confrontational and imperious.

The epic title track, with Grace’s voice striking and laced with reverb, is mysterious and captivating, gradually encircling the listener in its peculiar minimalist embrace. There are more powerful melodies elsewhere on the album (the infectious ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Love You To Life’ especially), but this is its magisterial centrepiece. Its processed bassline at least gives a playful nod to more recent musical developments – most specifically the ascendancy of grime and dubstep.

The debate will no doubt continue as to whether ‘Hurricane’ is a dated recapitulation or a bold new statement. What’s more significant is that the worlds of fashion, art, entertainment and music are once again intertwining meaningfully. As very few other performers are managing this now (Madonna has been coasting for some time, Janet Jackson no longer has the production and songwriting talent behind her that she desperately needs), Grace’s return is very much welcome.

Impressive Chops

Lambchop - Union Chapel, London 3/11/2008

I perhaps don’t need to write too extensively about Lambchop’s Union Chapel performance given my earlier comments about Kurt Wagner’s solo gig at Club Uncut last month. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, it has perhaps bolstered the opinions I expressed tentatively in that article. During Lambchop’s career post-‘Nixon’, Wagner’s vocal delivery and performing personality have become ever more compelling and idiosyncratic, whilst the sound of his group has drifted towards the polite and understated. Again, the songs from ‘OH(Ohio)’ (played in its entirety in sequence tonight, interrupted only by a lovely Bob Dylan cover, familiar to anyone who attended the Club Uncut gig) come to more vivid life in live performance, but there remains a sense that the band’s tasteful backing is diminishing rather than supporting their individuality.

Perhaps this is because Lambchop have settled into a more conventional group structure. Where once they benefited from contributions from Pauls Burch and Niehaus on Vibes and Pedal Steel respectively and also had the novelty of two bass players and a baritone saxophonist, they are now a comparatively streamlined seven-piece rock group. Admittedly, this is still a group with a lightness of touch and nuanced understanding of what makes music soulful and moving, but William Tyler’s pretty guitar figures often end up rendering the music less multi-faceted.

Their tranquillity remains deceptive though – and the moments when their coiled intensity unravels provide some of the thrilling highlights of this concert. There’s a sprawling ‘National Talk Like A Pirate Day’ and, perhaps most surprisingly, a barnstorming medley of Wagner’s X-Press 2 collaboration with Talking Heads’ ‘Once in A Lifetime’. Perhaps the latter serves as recognition that David Byrne also collaborated with X-Press 2 on a dance track, or maybe it repays the compliment for his stirring cover of ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’ (which, pleasingly, gets a rare airing towards the end of the set). There’s also a tetchy, irritable version of ‘Up With People’ that closes the main set. Initially, this sounds like Wagner just wants to get it over with – but the additional aggression with which he delivers the words serves as a powerful call to arms on the eve of the US Presidential election. Pianist Tony Crow’s bizarre moments of, erm, ‘sit-down’ comedy suggest that the band, like many other commentators, see this election as an epochal one.

The new songs represent a return to the sound of Lambchop’s earliest albums, so it's perhaps unsurprising to find the few older songs they play tonight revisiting that period. I particularly enjoyed the brisk, energetic take on ‘All Smiles and Mariachi’. The new material once again demonstrates Wagner’s originality and vitality as a lyricist, so it’s pleasing to again be able to discern the words (a real problem with the studio versions). ‘A Hold On You’ and ‘Please Stand’ emerge tonight as the set’s most moving selections.

Wagner ends the set with a gloved fist raised into the air triumphantly, before walking through the Union Chapel’s aisles towards the far exit. He expresses his gratefulness to the audience with transparent sincerity – and one of his many virtues is his ability to build bridges between his group and their listeners. I still wonder whether it might be time for a new phase in his career though.