On her new Punishing Kiss (Decca), German cabaret star Ute Lemper tackles a slate of tunes written for her by some of rock’s darkest and wryest artists–including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, and the British cult group the Divine Comedy. Over the last decade the singer has won acclaim for her roles in stage productions of Cabaret and Chicago, but more relevant here, she’s earned a reputation as a leading interpreter of Kurt Weill. Though there’s only one Weill tune on the album, “Tango Ballad” from Threepenny Opera, Punishing Kiss has the same effect as Hal Willner’s tributes to the composer, which have highlighted his influence on contemporary music with interpretations of his songs by artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Dagmar Krause, Polly Jean Harvey, and Sting. Lemper has put a twist on Willner’s approach, choosing contemporary songs that reflect that influence, from the Divine Comedy’s slyly melodramatic “The Case Continues” (“My only crime was passion, wild and uncontrolled / If sex were an Olympic sport, we’d have won the gold”) to Cave’s chilling murder ballad “Little Water Song,” in which the narrator implores her lover to appreciate how her beauty is magnified by the water he’s drowned her in. The bulk of the arrangements were worked out and performed by the Divine Comedy, whose Neil Hannon sings a couple duets with Lemper, and they juggle art-rock sheen, cabaret wooziness, and difficult dissonance; the album closes with Walker’s sweeping 11-minute “Scope J,” an epic fraught with orchestral tension. Lemper doing Elvis Costello in his Burt Bacharach mode is a low point, but overall this is a compelling experiment. For this gig, one of only five in the U.S., she’ll be backed by a five-piece band on songs from the album as well as rock-flavored takes on Weill. Saturday, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 773-722-5436 or 312-902-1500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lorenzo Agius.