Odd that two icons of dance music, Pet Shop Boys and Grace
Jones, both had to wait years to get strong British albums released this year
in the U.S.
Nothing worse than dance acts having to cool their heels. The five-year delay
for the Boys’ Concrete could be
explained by the fact it was a live album, mostly of newer material that hadn’t
been American hits. But that’s no excuse for the three-year delay with Hurricane, the latest from Jones, the
Jamaica-born American-raised model who became a late 1970s/early 1980s disco
diva with her stylish dominatrix looks and cold, ruthlessly authoritarian
voice. (She then became an action-movie actress.)
Hurricane is her first new album since 1989, and it’s her best
ever. The arrangements mix dub reggae, trip-hop, electronica, and some
explosive bursts of rock, as on the treated-guitar blast in the middle of
“Corporate Cannibal.” Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare supply fantastically
supple drums and bass throughout, but there’s much else going on – strings,
harmonies, and layers of keyboards (Brian Eno and Paul Goude, Jones’ son, are
among those contributing keyboards and backing vocals).
And if she once was almost considered a novelty act, more
poseur than singer, then her age and the sensitivity of her co-producer, Ivor
Guest, have brought out a voice that emotionally connects with the material,
all of which she had a hand in writing.
“Emotionally connects” actually is too soft a term for it.
There’s some very effective singing – holding notes, carrying a melody,
applying coloration, and varying the emphasis on her words – that makes this an
album for listening as much as dancing. When she adds a refrain of “Amazing
Grace” to the end of “Williams’ Blood,” a song she wrote with Wendy & Lisa,
it’s moving. That may be because the song, itself, is so good – a bittersweet
autobiographical reflection on how her mother’s artistic impulses were
suppressed by a stern father, and how she now is following a path her mother
(whose family name was Williams) might have wished to take. In that sense,
“Amazing Grace” is appropriate; she’s been saved. This theme is continued in
“I’m Crying (“Mother’s Tears”), which she wrote with Guest and where her soft,
sometimes-whispering vocals are at times as seductively lulling as Sade’s.
Yet Jones still has an edge; can still punch and bark. In
the title song, written with Tricky, she declares herself capable of “tearing
down trees.” In the spooky and unsettling “Corporate Cannibal,” which shows the
same level of contempt for commercialism as Rage Against the Machine once
offered, she plays with her old S&M disco image when intoning, as the voice
of the cold, cruel capitalist “man-eating machine,” “Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate.”
This is a remarkable song that she (and three others,
including Guest) wrote, considering her background serving the avaricious
fashion industry. What does she mean singing, perhaps with deadpan humor, “I’ll consume my consumers with no sense of
humor”? And is it directed toward the music industry, since she repeats the
term “digital criminal” in it? Meaty stuff.
Maybe because the U.S. release was delayed, it comes
with a bonus Dub mix of the entire
album. It doesn’t cost anything extra, and the versions – while sometimes
flirting with monotony – serve as atmospheric soundscapes and spacey variations
on a theme. But they’re no substitute for Hurricane’s versions.
Blood,” “Sunset Sunrise”