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Women on the verge

Marianne Faithfull has done most of her best work (and earned some extracurricular headlines) with high-profile collaborators, from the Rolling Stones to Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti. Nonetheless, her personality is remarkably strong - helpers come and go, but there is a singular artist at the heart of her career's arc from ingenue to doyenne of the disenchanted.

So it is that her new Before the Poison can contain contributions from such singular voices (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Jon Brion) and yet sound like autobiography. The record's themes - the ache of betrayal, the cost of yesterday's pleasure, the fact that those we count on will disappoint us - are familiar to those who have watched life take its toll on the songwriter, but their musical realization here is remarkably effective. Cave and Harvey are obviously at home in this territory, supplying dissonant guitars and desolate orchestrations that match Faithfull's words (Harvey writes some of the lyrics as well), but it may come as a surprise just how perfectly Faithfull's weathered British diction fits these settings. Mick Jagger may now be rich enough to buy a small nation, but his old girlfriend has done a better job of growing old as a rock-and-roller.

Last fall's self-titled Nancy Sinatra comeback has much in common with Before the Poison. Both women are used to spending time in the shadows of men (Nancy owed tons to her father and Lee Hazelwood) but are now the main attraction. On Nancy, members of Calexico, Pulp, Sonic Youth, U2, and the Smiths pop up to write tunes or sing backup. The songs are often good and almost always true to Sinatra's persona, but the record is less successful in two ways: The tunes don't sit as perfectly next do each other as Poison's, and they can't make Sinatra's singing any better. As any fan of the Hazelwood/Sinatra records can tell you, though, a perfect voice isn't everything - and having a brilliant songwriter on your side can make all the difference in the world.

By John DeFore


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