Battle of the Cover Bands: Bryan Ferry Orchestra vs. X-TG (Throbbing Gristle)

Ferry 1

X-TG

By Steven Rosen

For music to go on living, it has to be reinterpreted from time to time. That can reinvigorate it – John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things – or be so corny and awful – Pat Boone’s infamous In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy is a textbook example – it can induce hysterical laughter.

Two recent album-length examples illustrate the risks and rewards of such an endeavor. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s The Jazz Age reimagines his Roxy Music and solo work as the repertoire of an elegantly swinging, 15-piece 1920s-era dance band. Ferry, who doesn’t sing or play on the project, co-produced with Rhett Davies.

As a singer with a romantically rumbling croon, Ferry long has had an attraction to the elegant compositions of the Great American Songbook – his 1999 As Time Goes By was an early example of a rocker doing an album of standards. On this exercise, you can’t fault the impeccable playing or the authenticity of the arrangements and period-evocative sound engineering (by Simon Willey), but are these really the right songs for this approach?

 Roxy Music’s art-rock – at least when it was new – was innovatively progressive and even dangerous. Here they become museum pieces. Hearing “Love Is the Drug,” “Virginia Plain” and “The Bogus Man” this way embalms the material. And many lose a key dimension without vocals. Even “Do the Strand,” which originally teasingly evoked the sass and swagger of a Roaring Twenties dance party, sounds less interesting. Ferry’s biggest solo hits are here – “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” – with faster, brighter tempos that make them different, true. But at the cost of their mysteriousness.

 Ferry has the rep and clout to make sure a project like this is done first-class all the way – even the CD’s packaging is gorgeous. The interplay between strings and horns (with Martin Wheatley’s banjo emerging from the mix occasionally) is a pleasure. But overall, this material just doesn’t benefit from it.

 Desertshore/The Final Report had a troubled path to completion, but we can be glad its determined creators stayed with it.

 X-TG is Throbbing Gristle – the 1970s-originated British avant-garde art-noise outfit that arguably has proved a more influential and long-lasting contribution to contemporary music than its British punk contemporaries – minus singer Genesis P-Orridge.

 The group, which had reunited, had wanted to attempt a transformative interpretation of Nico’s 1970 Desertshore album, a tour-de-force of baroquely droning melancholy featuring her husky, longing, isolating voice playing off her harmonium and producer John Cale’s solemn arrangements. It had a sorrowful yet sacred quality that time has never diminished.

 In 2007, Throbbing Gristle privately released a limited-edition multi-disc chronicle of its attempts to date, The Desertshore Installation. But P-Orridge subsequently quit, so the other members – Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti – decided to start over with guest vocalists. But then Christopherson died in his sleep in 2010, so the others had to finish a project that now was as much a tribute to him as Nico’s album. It has been released using a name that implies being the remains of Throbbing Gristle.

 It’s a tastefully packaged two-CD set that looks like a breast-pocket version of the Beatles’ “White Album.” The second disc, The Final Report, is Carter and Tutti working with material left behind by Christopherson and is not directly related to Desertshore.

 The whole project is haunted by mournfulness and death. And that of course suits a Nico tribute well. (A child in Germany during World War II, she died in 1988 at age 49, the result of bicycling injuries in Ibiza. All the existential cruelties of life can be found in her time on earth, but also the ability of music to alleviate them.)

 The three Throbbing Gristle members generally favor an atmospherically simmering, ominous minimalism in their use of keyboards, synths, guitars, percussion and sonic treatments. This approach showcases the singers and underscores the beauty and the gravity of the undertaking.

 Marc Almond’s voice is wonderful on “The Falconer” as he explores both his low and high ranges. And Antony’s high singing is so swooping and lovely on “Janitor of Lunacy” that he injects an ethereal hopefulness into the song’s gloom, while X-TG’s accompaniment provides overtones of symphonic grandeur.

On two German-language numbers, “Abschied” and “Mutterlein,” Blixa Bargeld – certainly a kindred spirit to Throbbing Gristle – sings with a Brecht-Weill sense of enunciated importance. Tutti’s own singing is empathetic on “My Only Child,” whose gentle soundscape and choral-like harmonies is Eno-esque, while she suitably anchors the more industrial arrangement of “All That Is My Own.”

That leaves two odd ducks, both from the film world’s more extreme quarters. Sasha Grey, the former post-modern porn actress, somewhat tentatively warbles “Afraid,” and director Gasper Noe’s heavily treated croak winds up a footnote in “Le Petit Chevalier’s” no-nonsense repetitive arrangement.

 A final selection, an ambient original called “Desertshores,” serves as a way of saying goodbye to the ghosts that haunted both this project and Nico’s life.

(From Blurt Online, 5-20-13)

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Review: Petula Clark’s New Album Lost in You

PETULA CLARK – Lost in You

Album: Lost In You

Artist: Petula Clark

Petula Clark

Label: The End Records/Sony Music

Release Date: April 02, 2013

  BY STEVEN ROSEN

 As much a surprise as finding a new album by 80-year-old Petula Clark (singer of the 1964 pop-rock classic “Downtown”) on a label that also features Art Brut, the Prodigy, Cradle of Filth and Anvil is the fact that it’s really good. Not just good, but contemporary in its production and (for the most part) material, creating a showcase for Clark’s reserved but convincingly involved voice.

 Clark, who as a child made her singing debut on British radio during a World War II bombing raid, went on to international fame in the 1960s collaborating with Tony Hatch on bright, catchy hits (“Downtown” “I Know a Place,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”). Before that in the 1950s, and again after the American Top 40 presence ceased in the 1970s, she had also been popular in France, singing in French.

 While Lost in You is an English-language album, her French experience serves her well – the introspective coolness of the chanteuse has an ageless quality and is quite becoming to her. It’s also a great way for a voice that understandably has lost some of its youthful range to still be expressive, through smart use of nuance and asides.

 For this project, she has partnered with producer John Owen Williams, whose own long career in the British music business includes production and A&R work for many younger rock acts like Alison Moyet, the Proclaimers, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and many more. They have selected a savvy group of other collaborative producers, arrangers, players and writers, including Paul Visser, Steve Evans, James Hallawell (Waterboys) and Sarah Naghshineh.

 The songs are just right for Clark – subtly minor-key with a quiet beat, tastefully reflective string arrangements, stately piano and enough guitar to move things along. When they wander into ever-so-slight electronica, as on “Every Word You Say,” there’s just enough mysterious distance in Clark’s voice to give off a chill.

The opening song “Cut Copy Me” (by Naghshineh, Visser and Williams) is startlingly effective, from the computer-referencing title to the auto-tuned echo of her voice to the acoustic-guitar/piano interplay. It’s haunting and mysterious.

 She also does a harder-edged, dramatic version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” that shows how her pop-rock version can work as well as Bettye Lavette’s recent soulful take. And on “Reflections,” a song adapted from Bach’s “Sleepers Awake,” lyrics about her childhood in Wales accompany the grandeur of the keyboard-and-strings arrangement. It’s a bona fide art song, and brings to mind how Procol Harum turned Bach into “A Whiter Shade of Pale” so long ago.

 Of special note is a new version of “Downtown,” her ebullient breakthrough American hit. It is now a ballad, her voice sometimes narrating the words as much as singing them. At the chorus, where the original song had her voice rise on “down” – connoting excitement – this time she straddles turning “down” into a minor-key note. The result is to make the song elegiac, a salutary tribute to a friend (the original version) from long ago.

 The album doesn’t need her cover of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” or John Lennon’s “Imagine” – they’re musty rock-classic selections that work against musical relevancy. Still, Clark has shown that a good pop stylist can stay as interesting in her eighties as can a more “authentic” roots singer, with the right material and production support.

The Rolling Stones used to point to Muddy Waters as an example of how blues-rockers can age gracefully and still be vital. One gets the feeling a lot of young pure-pop singers will look to Clark the same way after Lost in You.

(From Blurt Magazine, online 5-15-13)