[11 August 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What exactly is Grace Jones’ legacy? A hedonistic disco queen? An androgynous new-wave android? A snarling feline captured in photographs by Jean-Paul Goude? Will she be remembered less for her stunning version of “La Vie En Rose” and more for slapping Russell Harty across the face on live television in 1981? The Grace Jones Story doesn’t answer these questions but it does confirm that Ms. Jones’ contributions to popular music warrant a closer listen. To adequately assess The Grace Jones Story is to understand that three distinct phases shape Grace Jones’ singing career… and not all phases are created equally.
Phase I: Disco Queen, 1977-1979
Denizens of Studio 54 might feel sentimental towards disc one of The Grace Jones Story. It’s the most comprehensive summary yet of Jones’ three albums with legendary disco producer Tom Moulton on his Beam Junction label. While other compilations by Island Records have merely touched this era (Island Life, 1985) or disregarded it completely (Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions, 1998), The Grace Jones Story revels in all its strobe-lit glory.
Beginning with Portfolio (1977), the most essential of these albums, Jones morphed from ex-pat Parisian model to disco queen. Nearly all tracks from her debut are represented on The Grace Jones Story. A modern analysis of this material suggests that some cuts were merely lightweight fodder to attract a gay audience (ersatz disco versions of “Send in the Clowns” and “What I Did for Love”) but others prove Jones’ prowess as a song stylist. “I Need a Man” is perhaps the most exciting disco tune Jones ever recorded. The frantic arrangement somehow makes room for her leering delivery. Hear how she phrases “Why I’m feeling lonely, why” and punctuates it with an “uh”. Classic.
Subsequent releases Fame (1978) and Muse (1979) were not entirely unpleasant but did little to build on the strengths of Portfolio. Both albums contained side-long medleys, which the compilation producers have severely truncated here to pad The Grace Jones Story. The “Sinning/Suffer/Repentance/Saved” medley from Muse, for example, is represented by “Sinning” and “Saved”, but the effect is the aural equivalent of a torn photograph. More satisfying are the non-medley songs from Fame and Muse. “Am I Ever Going to Fall in Love in New York City” is a delightful slice of disco fluff and on “Don’t Mess with the Messer”, Jones emulates Marlene Dietrich in the spoken word intro. You can almost see the dry ice, sparkling jewels, and bikini-clad male dancers envelop her on these cuts. At best, the disco tunes are campy artifacts of a bygone era—fun to listen to and place in context but no grand artistic achievement.
Of the Moulton productions, “La Vie En Rose” (from Portfolio) survived the disco era with dignity because it bears the least resemblance to the largely indistinct cuts from the Moulton albums. Often spun as the sunrise opened the eyes of disco dwellers after all night dancing, “La Vie En Rose” proved that Jones could belt with the best of the disco divas, given the right tune and arrangement. Jones’ deftness for interpreting songs would bring her a “new wave” of success at the dawn of the 1980s.
Grace Jones—La Vie En Rose
Phase II: New Wave Icon, 1980-1982
“Sentimental gestures only bore me to death”. Robotically intoning these seven words on Chrissie Hynde’s “Private Life”, Jones essentially shed the skin of disco diva and became an icon of androgyny in the new wave era. Producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare guided Jones’ stylistic transformation on Warm Leatherette (1980), her first album on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Melding rock, reggae, and new wave with a glossy production sheen, Sly and Robbie cannily matched Jones with material ripe for reinterpretation: the title track by Normal, the Hynde composition, Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”, Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”, and “Love is the Drug” by Roxy Music. The Grace Jones Story serves up four key tracks from this landmark album plus a manic cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” (a B-side from the “Private Life” single).
Nightclubbing followed Warm Leatherette in 1981 and quickly topped lists of critics who likely thought very little of Fame or Muse. Improving on the ingredients that made Warm Leatherette such a revelatory piece, Nigtclubbing successfully crossed-over to the pop and R&B charts. Out of the NYC club ghetto and onto the airwaves sprung the massive hit “Pull Up to the Bumper”. Unfortunately the producers of The Grace Jones Story opt for the edited single version, again packing as many cuts onto an 80-minute disc as possible at the expense of fully realizes performances. Grace assumed a monotone voice to perform the title track, written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Its languid rhythm symbolized the New York nightlife hangover from the late ‘70s. It, along with “Waling in the Rain”, the tango-ish “I’ve Seen That Face Before”, and a cover of “Use Me” by Bill Withers, boasted Jones’ natural flair for creating a character in a song.
Completing the trilogy of albums recorded with Sly and Robbie in Jamaica, Living My Life (1982) stood firmly on the strengths of Jones’ impressive songwriting. “My Jamaican Guy” and “Nipple to the Bottle” consistently rotated on the DJ turntables and even 25 years later retain a vibrancy uncommon to other club hits of the era. Without Sly and Robbie dressing Jones’ artistic vision though, her future releases were less consistently listenable.
Grace Jones—Love Is a Drug
Phase III: MIA, 1985-present
Jones only recorded three albums between 1985 and 1989 so the contemporary Grace Jones is at least 15 years old. A grave omission to this set is the Trevor Horn-produced “Slave to the Rhythm” (1985) from the album of the same name. (Perhaps an intentional move so a customer is forced to buy yet another compilation?) Instead, “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You)” from Inside Story (1986), “Someone to Love” and “Love on Top of Love” from Bulletproof Heart (1989), and the “Sex Drive” single from 1992 are included. Generally weaker than her work with either Sly & Robbie or Tom Moulton, theses songs are horribly dated because of mid-‘80s production standards, i.e. soulless drum machines and synthesizers. Rumors about new material persist, but no recordings have yet surfaced.
So how vital is The Grace Jones Story when there are at least five other compilations on the market? It’s certainly the best looking collection. In addition to an illustrated discography, original photographs by David Corio document Jones’ singular stage presence. His powerful images are the perfect complement to the music, particularly the Sly & Robbie era. (Note the shots of Grace with accordion were captured during a performance of “La Vie En Rose”.) It is also the best sounding collection. Only the remastering on the 1998 Private Life set competes with The Grace Jones Story. The hard-to-find Moulton productions are crisp and clear, unlike the poorly-mastered CD version of Portfolio.
There’s no denying that The Grace Jones Story is the most thorough of all compilations. All eras are represented with perhaps a little too much attention towards the disco era in lieu of stronger material, i.e. “Slave to the Rhythm” is more crucial to the Grace Jones discography than sliced and diced disco medleys. I’d also take the full-length version of “Pull Up the Bumper” over Jones’ eight-minute rant on “She’s Lost Control”. These are only personal preferences, though, and the reality is no single Grace Jones compilation will completely satisfy every fan. However, for those just getting to know the music of Jones or dare to know more, The Grace Jones Story is the perfect primer.
Grace Jones—Slave to the Rhythm