Wednesday, April 08, 2009

An Old Hand and A New Maverick

Marianne Faithful - Easy Come, Easy Go (Anti, 2009)
Micachu - Jewellery (Rough Trade, 2009)

Blimey. If it wasn’t shocking enough hearing Morrissey sing ‘there are explosive kegs between my legs’, it’s positively freakish hearing Marianne Faithfull utter the same words. This she does some way into ‘Easy Come Easy Go’, a dense and, I suppose, rather indulgent double album made in collaboration with Hal Willner. One has to have some degree of bravery simply to get this far.

I’ve never been too great an admirer of Faithfull’s work – it’s always struck me that she’s more famous for a certain incident with a Mars Bar for good reason. Perhaps this judgment has been prejudicial and unfair though – late into her career she has begun to prove herself an interpreter of sound judgment and considerable skill. I enjoyed her ‘Before the Poison’ album, and I was intrigued enough by the cast list and song selection here to at least dip more than a big toe in. Willner seems to provoke intense reactions – some people see him as a false pretender. I’ve admired his recent work, particularly the collection of pirate songs that, even if tied to the tiresome Pirates of the Caribbean movies, served as a fascinating curate’s egg.

At least in theory, Willner’s approach plays to Faithfull’s strengths. ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ is made up of a set of mostly strong songs (albeit drawn from very different parts of the musical map) and a group of musicians, Willner included, who favour an avant-garde reversion of cabaret song for which her husky voice is ideally suited. One of the arrangers is Steve Bernstein, whose Millennial Territory Orchestra I very much enjoyed at the Jazz on 3 gig at last year’s London Jazz Festival. His combination of knowledge of tradition and outlandish free spirit is perfect for this project too. Indeed, the arrangements, simultaneously smoky and extravagant, are sumptuous throughout.

One has to question the wisdom of making this a double set though. Recorded mostly live and, it seems, with some degree of haste, it could have benefited from some stricter editing, or at least some development of some of its simpler ideas. There are times when Willner is on cruise control, doing little more than regurgitating the original songs. Faithfull’s range remains limited, and sometimes it seems as if the songs have been selected more for their credibility than for her ability to claim them for herself. It’s great to see someone else spreading the word about the astonishing and tragic Judee Sill, but I’d sooner listen to her original of ‘The Phoenix’. As for the mauling of ‘Somewhere’ with Jarvis Cocker, all it achieves is to prove that most pop singers are simply not suited for musical theatre.

The first disc is considerably stronger. It’s not as if the grief of Dolly Parton’s ‘Down From Dover’ needs additional gravitas, but Faithfull’s performance certainly provides it. It sizzles and smoulders quite brilliantly. Neko Case’s ‘Hold On Hold On’ becomes rather demonic and sinister, and The Decemberists’ ‘The Crane Wife 3’ crackles with foreboding, with Faithfull accompanied by a relatively restrained Nick Cave. Also uncharacteristically held back is Rufus Wainwright on a version of Espers’ ‘Children of Stone’ that sounds mysterious and enchanting. Perhaps best of all is Smokey Robinson’s ‘Ooh Baby Baby’, on which the ubiquitous Antony Hegarty guests, overflowing with sexual urgency rather than mournful reflection.

The first disc makes a surprisingly strong case for linking fashionable contemporary selections with the Great American Songbook. Perhaps, along with the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation, it also inadvertently bolsters the argument that American music is currently in very good health indeed. It’s a neat, open-minded trick to pull off and with a more selective, less rushed execution, this could have been a real gem.

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Rough Trade, managed as something akin to a utopian collective, haemorrhaged its most successful artists to bigger, more powerful labels. Now reincarnated, they seem to be doing the cherry picking themselves. The much touted Micachu’s debut album was delayed for a month or so whilst she defected over from Matthew Herbert’s Accidental label.

In this case, the hype is worth believing. Whilst Mica has been compared (very unfairly) to Kate Nash for her estuary vowels, there is undoubtedly a singular and compelling talent at work here. Trained in composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music, Mica combines rawness and energy with imaginative writing and real rhythmic flair. At last we are reaching a stage where the musical interests of our performers matches the diversity of music on offer – a situation where marketing grime mix tapes and writing for major orchestras needn’t be mutually exclusive activities.

‘Jewellery’ is in many senses a bit of a ragbag collection, with some tracks recorded as a solo artist and others developed with her band The Shapes. All the songs are mercilessly concise, with only one track breaking the three minute mark. That track ends with a jubilant voice declaring ‘it’s a keeper!’ The music seems joyful as much for its rough edges as for its underlying sophistication. It’s gleefully fragmented, but individual tracks are curiously logical and carefully arranged. Perhaps this kind of non-conceptual sequencing makes for an album better equipped for the digital age.

In every song, Mica’s distinctive character, both musical and personal, cuts through clearly and with real intelligence. From the infectious ‘Golden Phone’ to the vengeful aggression of ‘Curly Teeth’, this is a set full of insight and humour. She may not be a gifted singer by conventional criteria, but her phrasing is crisp and imaginative and always adds a sense of forward motion to the songs. The contrast between the insistent strum of her unusual mini-guitar and the intricate syncopation of the drums and keyboard lines is particularly striking, and a consistent stylistic feature throughout.

Mica’s cerebral but personal songs, equal parts anxiety and confidence, are convincingly real and human. The music, skittering but somehow controlled and organised, seems to reflect this. This is not a record for people who see things in black and white, or want their music to be neatly compartmentalised. But it is a brilliantly idiosyncratic pop record for anyone looking for something audacious and fresh.

No comments: