Should popular music be exhumed or left on the shelf to live (or die) by its own, original merits? Two recent releases, in which Bryan Ferry revisits his Roxy Music and solo oeuvre and members of Throbbing Gristle take on late chanteuse Nico, provide textbook examples supporting both arguments.
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.
Steven “Imaginary Records” Rosen is BLURT’s resident tribute and covers album expert. He spends long, torturous hours listening to myriad manhandled musics so YOU don’t have to. He can be reached at www.stevenrosenwriter.com, but be gentle with him, please.