Hey pop kids, hands up anyone who has heard of Ute Lemper? Nobody? Well, it’s hardly surprising. She probably hasn’t been on any MTV shows near you. Lemper is the German cabaret diva best knows for her vampish stage performances (most recently in an acclaimed London production of Chicago) and her Marlene Dietrich/Edith Piaf impersonations. She has also recorded two albums of Kurt Weill songs.
Punishing Kiss sees her dipping her toe for the first time into the world of rock…and then diving eagerly in, leather catsuit and all. The album features Ms. Lemper singing 13 tracks, penned by a variety of fellow cabaret-lovers, including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Philip Glass and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. Not to mention, of course, that old cabaret-meister himself, Weill. Given the personnel involved, it is hardly surprising that this is an unabashedly theatrical album. Replete with bombast and high drama galore, these 13 tracks are positively dripping with lasciviousness, debauchery, booze and tears. They wouldn’t feel out of place in one of those sin-soaked music halls of the 1920s/1930s Weimar Republic, with nary a Liza Minnelli in sight
“Little Water Song,” written by Nick Cave, kicks off the proceedings in the style in which they will continue with Lemper singing the part of the woman being drowned by her lover. Kurt Weill’s “Tango Ballad,” an ode to love between prostitute and pimp with the unforgettably chorus “That time’s long past but what I would not give/ To see that whore house where we used to live,” on which Lemper duets with Neil Hannon, is deliciously debauched. The Elvis Costello-penned “Passionate Fight” and “Couldn’t You Keep That To Yourself” are both masterclasses in the marriage of melody and words, as is only to be expected from the master. And in Lemper’s voice, he had found a powerful medium for his writing. The two Tom Waits numbers, whilst being somewhat by-the-numbers Waits compositions with all his deranged humor and hangdog lyricism, are sung with a smoky weariness worthy of the Old Growler himself. This is how Waits would sound if he had Lemper’s lustful, tarnished angel’s voice.
The musical backing, provided by Irish band, The Divine Comedy, is comprised of lush, though somewhat skewed orchestral arrangements with plenty of wheezing accordions, bleeding violins and tipsy pianos thrown in for good effect. Neil Hannon duets with Lemper on two of the songs here and his lecherous baritone forms a good counterpart to her soaring vocals although, in the face of her technical perfection, his vocal limitations are made apparent.
The only questionable moment comes at the very end and that is Scott Walkers’ “Scope J,” which, frankly, is utterly bizarre and is neither lyrically nor melodically in tune with what went before. Whilst the song itself certainly has merit, it would probably be more suited to, well, to a Scott Walker album.
As she writes on the sleeve notes, this is the music of the twilight world explored by of the movies of Fassbinder, Wenders and Truffaut (not to mention Lynch and Jarmusch) and the music of Serge Gainsbourg, Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht with all its grotesque absurdity. However, like most of Waits’ work, the emotional force and romanticism here is so overblown, that it is difficult to take seriously. The impression given is that Lemper has her tongue in cheek throughout. It is probably not music that your average modern listener will be able to relate to but somehow that is not the point. In the spirit of those old music halls, this is meant purely to entertain, to add some spice to the mundanity of life. There is little here by way of emotional exorcism or social comment. And the album is all the better for it.
This is music to get drunk (or laid) to, so get out that purple velvet tuxedo, top hat and bottle of brandy and get ready to sing along. But watch out for the broken glass on the stairs!