Marianne Faithfull

Island Records 90613-1

Most rock crits wear the mantle of infallibility like Superman’s bulletproof long johns. Their year-end lists have a particularly definitive ring: “I’ve listened to ’em all, and these are the best that be” is the accepted subtext of such December tallies. But inevitably, come January, I wind up feeling a bit ashamed, for it seems that every year a record pops up and clobbers me at the top of the new year, long after my best-of deadlines are a memory.

In ’87, I slapped the remorse-inspiring item in question onto the turntable on Christmas Eve, as others in the house puttered with gift wrapping. The album had gotten buried in the living room, to be excavated only when it made an appearance on several other critics’ top-ten lists. So much for infallibility.

Thus this year’s late-breaking addition to my best of ’87–I suppose you could call it the Top Album Annex–is the latest from Marianne Faithfull, Strange Weather. My apologies, Marianne; I’m glad we found each other.

I have to admit that I ignored Strange Weather with inordinate ease. The LP may best be described as Faithfull’s second comeback album. Some history is in order: Faithfull, best known in the 60s as a swinging London cupcake and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, had her only U.S. hit of any size with the Jagger-penned “As Tears Go By” in ’64. After a short string of English singles, she succumbed to heroin addiction and exited the pop music scene.

She returned to music like a fury in 1979 with her first Island album, Broken English. Her reentry was a shocker: her girlish soprano had metamorphosed into a harpy’s rasp, and her lyrics were brutal, even obscene (“Why D’Ya Do It,” a venomous number penned in part by English poet Heathcote Williams). As startling as this creative rebirth was, Faithfull was unable to capitalize on it; her two subsequent records, Dangerous Acquaintances and A Child’s Adventure, made little impact, and she once again faded from view.

After an absence of two years, Faithfull reappeared in 1985, but only briefly; with Chris Spedding contributing guitar, she offered a hackle-raising version of “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” on Lost in the Stars, the striking A&M anthology of Kurt Weill songs. That album–and a pair of others devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk and Nino Rota–was produced by Hal Willner, who ultimately had the vision to bring Faithfull back into the studio for a full-length project.

On Strange Weather, Willner reverses the conceptual process he has used on his highly lauded series of composers’ retrospectives. Before, he used the writer’s work as a principle to unify the performances of a highly diverse cast of singers and players; the Weill LP, his best, features tracks by Sting, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Todd Rundgren, Carla Bley and Phil Woods, Van Dyke Parks, and John Zorn, among others. Here, he uses Faithfull’s voice–harsh, fatigued, world-weary, sometimes ironic–as the organizing factor that binds an extremely eclectic selection of ballads, blues, R & B tunes, gospel numbers, and contemporary material. The songs on Strange Weather are drawn from no one time period; they span over half a century, from 1931 to 1987.

It is a tribute to Faithfull’s taste and interpretive gifts that the record sounds like a seamless creation. She sings Kid Prince Moore’s obscure 1936 gospel blues “Sign of Judgement” with the same unforced assurance as Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan’s new “Strange Weather.” One shudders to think of the braying mess that someone like Linda Ronstadt would make of a repertoire that includes the 30s weeper “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the nostalgia-filled Jerome Kern-Otto Harbach classic “Yesterdays,” the R & B chestnut “Love, Life, and Money,” and Bob Dylan’s wrenching “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” Yet Faithfull keeps things all of a piece on Strange Weather–there isn’t a misstep or a false emotional note to be heard in any of these wide-ranging interpretations.

Much credit is due Faithfull’s superior group of accompanists. Guitarist Bill Frisell is present on most of the tracks; a specialist in unusual, sonorous chordings and thick harmonics, he is ideal for the creation of dense atmospheres. Frisell is often joined by Fernando Saunders, formerly the great bass player in Lou Reed’s band of the early 80s, whose throaty tone complements Frisell’s lush stylings supremely. Dr. John sits in on “Love, Life, and Money,” knocking out a first-rate Professor Longhair-like solo piano line. The sympathetic string arrangements on some of the tunes were provided by Michael Gibbs.

But finally it is Marianne Faithfull’s hour to triumph. It would have been easy for her work on these difficult songs to topple over the line into self-pity and bathos, but her restrained, beautifully tempered work always remains direct, emotively honest, and free of stylized handwringing.

The whole of Strange is satisfying, but several cuts stand out. A particular dazzler is “Yesterdays,” which many feel was definitively performed by Billie Holiday in her 1939 Commodore version. Faithfull eschews Holiday’s double-time embrace of the repeated verse and chorus; she takes the entire song at a ballad pace, as Frisell and Saunders spin harmonic nimbuses around her. Faithfull’s version, which lacks the bitterly swinging gaiety of Holiday’s, is a sober attack that squeezes new feeling from a number that can readily be played for easy pathos.

Equally affecting is the title cut, which contains the shantylike rhythms of many of Tom Waits’s more recent compositions. Backed by Frisell, Saunders, and guest accordionist Garth Hudson, Faithfull calmly negotiates the shifting cadences of Waits and Brennan’s end-of-an-affair ballad, with its stunning line, “Strange a woman tries to save what a man will try to drown.” The album reaches its conclusion with a potent diptych: a somber remake of “As Tears Go By” and the Percy Mayfield-like “A Stranger on Earth.” She invests “Tears” with a new weight of regret, and ups the ante by mating it to the mournful, otherworldly sensibility of “Stranger”:

The day’s gonna come

When I prove my worth

And I won’t be no stranger

No I won’t be no stranger

On this earth.

In his liner notes to Strange Weather, novelist Terry Southern compares Marianne Faithfull to such divas as Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich, and Lotte Lenya. The comparison is an apt one. Dietrich and Lenya lacked a number of singerly virtues, but their strengths lay in a kind of extramusical quality of feeling and experience. Holiday had the same quality late in her career, when her vocal instrument was practically destroyed but her emotional instincts remained intact (this can be heard best in her shattering valedictory LP Lady in Satin).

Like these singers, Faithfull displays a virtuosity on Strange Weather that exists outside the music. The sound of a life that has been lived–the sound Faithfull displays on Strange Weather–is a rare, powerful, and beautiful one, and one that few singers of her generation can generate.