German chanteuse Ute Lemper has been caught between worlds for some time, but never has it been more apparent than on her latest disc, But One Day. A respected stage actress who has appeared in Cats, Cabaret, and Chicago, Lemper has expanded beyond Broadway blockbusters to sing French chansons, cabaret, and the songs of Kurt Weill, of which she is today’s foremost interpreter. While her interpretations of standards and Broadway fare have earned Lemper the respect of mainstream theatre audiences, her edgier, more sexually charged work (not to mention her film noir good looks) attract a younger, more hip crowd. Lemper took a big gamble on the latter audience with the 2000 release of Punishing Kiss. Featuring songs by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, and the Divine Comedy, plus a cover photo of Lemper looking like a real leather-clad bad girl, the album was an obvious attempt to please the hipster fan base and lure new pop/rock fans. While Punishing Kiss generated some positive press, it wasn’t a pop breakthrough, leaving Lemper in the unenviable position of deciding what direction to pursue on her follow-up.
Anyone in the same situation would be bound to feel a little lost, and Lemper is no exception. She admitted in a recent interview that her first impulse was to continue in the modern direction of Punishing Kiss and record an album of her original songs, but she also wanted to make an album that would please her theatre audience. No wonder the resulting album—which contains five Lemper compositions, two each by Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel, and even two Astor Piazzolla tangos (!)—feels more like a document of a transitional period in Lemper’s career than a fully realized album. It is almost as if two different albums, one contemporary and one classical, are battling for space on one disc. Adding to the disunity is the fact that Lemper’s original songs were recorded with producers/musicians Peter Scherer and Todd Turkisher, while the remaining tracks were produced by Robert Ziegler, whose Matrix Ensemble provides strings, as it also did on Lemper’s excellent Berlin Cabaret Songs. With the exception of the simple arrangements of “Living without You” and “Oblivion”, Ziegler’s tracks display an elaborate theatrical bent that is at odds with the adult contemporary style of the Scherer/Turkisher productions. Ziegler can’t really be faulted for this, though, because not only are his arrangements excellent, but they are essential to the spirit of the songs.
For her part, Lemper handles both strains of material well, proving once again on the classical material that she is an excellent dramatic singer while giving the modern songs an intimacy and violence of feeling that a mere Celine Dion could never accomplish. As a songwriter, Lemper’s varied subject matter includes a smoldering love song (“I Surrender”), an ode to the daughter of Holocaust survivors (“Lena”, featuring Laurie Anderson on violin), an abusive kiss-off (“But One Day”), a sweet tribute to her children (“Little Face”), and a poem inspired by Bertolt Brecht (“On Brecht—Epilogue”). It will be interesting to follow Lemper’s development as a songwriter, as she’s certain to pursue composition now that the writing bug has bitten her. In the future, though, she will have to make some tough decisions about how to pursue her many musical passions. By trying to serve two audiences on her current release, Lemper has created an album that is likely to fully satisfy neither.