Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 Broken English may be as influential an album to come out of Britain’s punk
revolution as any – and it isn’t even punk, technically.
But when Faithfull, who had been missing in action as a
relevant recording artist for more than a dozen years (at least in the U.S.),
came blazing back, with a voice that replaced the sweetness and innocence of
“As Tears Go By” with something as burnished and rough-edged as a worn straight
razor, it seemed a metaphor for the way punk wanted to toss out pop prettiness
and mannered artifice for the cutting edge. Her sound was more varied and
complex than punk’s buzzing, slashing guitars, but it was as bold.
The material, too, reflected the freedom and daring that
punk brought – unencumbered of living up to a pop image or the need to turn out
singer-songwriter sentimentalism, and unafraid to challenge listeners, she
could do John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” as well as her own (with
co-writers) ominous title song. And the frankness extended to the graphic
language and sexual reference in “Why’d Ya Do It?,” with a lyric by poet
Heathcote Williams, that was as intimidating to the squares as anything on the
Sex Pistols’ album. The lesson of Broken
English was that in a newly-liberated-by-punk music world, anyone –
including women; including British Invasion survivors – could record anything.
Faithfull, now 64, has followed that template now for 12
more albums, studio and live – Horses and
High Heels is the latest. In doing so, she has become the premier post-rock
chanteuse. While the shock of the new is long gone from her recordings, they
have all been relatively solid and assured and, at their best, inspired
(especially when she sings melancholy-infused ballads).
She seems an especially good match for producer Hal
Willner’s informed and eclectic musical tastes – this is their third project.
Recorded in New Orleans with an array of seasoned accompanists like Dr. John,
Wayne Kramer, George Porter Jr. and background singer Jenni Muldaur, it
includes string arrangements and ever-so-delicate sampling by Willner when
It’s about evenly balanced between original material and
covers that show Willner’s and Faithfull’s deep-catalog knowledge of pop music.
(Her last Willner-produced album, 2008’s Easy
Come, Easy Go, was all covers and featured guest vocalists.) Of the four
originals (all with co-writers), “Prussian Blue” finds Faithfull in a light,
cheerful mood while “Why Did We Have to Part” is sterner stuff. Both work well.
Some of the older songs seem chosen for the bittersweet
revisionism that comes with reinterpreting them decades on. The lovely
Goffin-King composition “Goin’ Back,” whose introspection and sense of loss
stood out as unusual in the swingin’ 1960s when the Byrds recorded it, now
sounds perfect for someone in her
sixties. And the Shangri-Las’ melodramatic, classically tinged “Past, Present
and Future” comes off now as clairvoyant, infused with Faithfull’s own life
lessons. It’s not quite her “Is That All There Is?,” but it’s an antecedent.
On the other hand, New Orleans and its ageless music
traditions also let her relax and have some fun with oldies. She covers Joe and
Ann’s delightfully fun old Crescent City roll-and-rocker “Gee Baby,” although
Dr. John – who reportedly played on the original – isn’t on this track. And,
finding a hard-charging-yet-melodic track from an obscure, early-1970s Jackie
Lomax album, “No Reason,” she tackles it with the kind of energy that makes you
wonder if she should have fronted Bad Company.
On newer material, her foreboding, defiant version of Greg
Dulli/Mark Lanegan’s “The Station” provides a shiver, and there’s a thoughtful,
tender quality – a flowing humanism – to R. B. Morris’ magnificent protest
song, “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” that makes it the album’s standout.
Toward the end, the album lets down a bit. The production on
Allen Toussaint’s “Back in Baby’s Arms” comes on too strong, overwhelming one
of the venerable songwriter’s more generic tunes. Similarly, on “Eternity” –
which Faithfull wrote with Doug Pettibone – an odd Eastern-tinged undercurrent
(sampled from the Brian Jones-recorded Pipes
of Pan at Jajouka) battles with a corny Doobie Brothers rhythm, overloading
the arrangement. And “The Old House,” written for her by Irish poet/playwright
Frank McGuinness (with Leo Abrahams) has a strong central image (“My father’s ghost/Left me the keys to the
old house”), but as a song seems to have been constructed primarily to
build to a guitar solo by Lou Reed that fades out before it goes anywhere
Faithfull and Willner deserve special credit for
resurrecting the late Lesley Duncan’s transcendently delicate “Love Song” from
obscurity. Elton John had covered it (with Duncan) on Tumbleweed Connection, but so rare were his covers and so much did
the song remind one of his own “Your Song” that she never really benefited from
the attention. Here, Faithfull lets its timeless grandeur bathe and renew her
voice, and she returns the favor to the song’s optimistic intent. It’s
Song,” “Horses and High Heels” STEVEN