Marianne Faithfull’s last record,Easy Come, Easy Go (2008), was an ambitious double album of covers that featured an extraordinary roll call of guest artists and ranged widely through musical genres, finding space for songs by Dolly Parton, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Judee Sill, Duke Ellington, Morrissey, Espers, Merle Haggard and many more. In terms of quality control, Easy Come, Easy Go was, like much of Faithfull’s recorded output, an erratic release, one that lurched wildly from the sublime (Faithfull and Nick Cave tackling The Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife”) to the ridiculous (a truly bizarre cover of Bernstein/Sondheim’s “Somewhere (A Place For Us)” with Jarvis Cocker). But the album nonetheless generated a cumulative excitement as Faithfull and her collaborators somehow turned the record’s melange of folk, blues, jazz, country and contemporary rock songs into something resembling a cohesive statement. Uniting the diverse material was, of course, Faithfull’s distinctive smoky croak, with its strange, singular mixture of punky defiance, folky intimacy and Dietrich-esque hauteur.
Faithfull returns with a somewhat lower-key release in Horses and High Heels, her 23rd solo album. Produced again by Hal Willner and recorded in the New Orleans French Quarter, the record features four songs co-written by Faithfull and eight cover tracks, including a song written especially for her by the playwright Frank McGuinness. The roster of big-name collaborators has been significantly trimmed (oh, but wait! There’s Lou Reed on guitar! And Dr. John! And MC5’s Wayne Kramer!), but the album makes the most of the talents of some crack New Orleans musicians, including Carlo Nuccio on drums, George Porter Jr. on bass and Bob Andrews on keyboards. There’s a palpable Crescent City vibe to many of the tracks, and in its merging of blues, soul and rock influences, the record is close in spirit to an album such as Bettye LaVette’s contemporary classic I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005). One of Faithfull’s most consistently engaging releases, Horses and High Heels is strong enough to withstand that particular comparison.
Faithfull has described Horses and High Heels as an atypical release for her, in that “it’s a very happy record. I’m not depressed anymore … So I suppose this album is a bit of a breakthrough”. The galvanizing take on The Gutter Twins’ “The Stations” that opens the record doesn’t really bear out that statement. It’s a wonderfully portentous and atmospheric beginning, with Faithfull intoning the mysterious lyrics against twitchy, chiming guitar and mournful violin: “I hear the rapture’s coming/They say he’ll be here soon/Right now there’s demons crawling/All around my room”. There’s nothing feel-good about the following track either, the straight-up break-up lament “Why Did We Have To Part?” which Faithfull penned with Laurent Voulzy. The lyrics are a touch prosy but there’s a straightforward candor to the song and to Faithfull’s performance that’s ineffably touching.
Subsequent tracks are more diverse in tone and mood, however. For starters, there’s the rollicking juke-joint swagger of Jackie Lomax‘s “No Reason” and surprisingly charming takes on Joe & Ann’s “Gee Baby” and Allen Toussaint’s “Back In Baby’s Arms”. The redemptive “Prussian Blue”, meanwhile, is one of the loveliest things that Faithfull has ever written and despite a rather weak vocal that’s buried too low in the mix, the spiritual power of the song still comes through loud and clear. Strings, harp, woodwind and piano underscore Faithfull’s delivery of The Shangri-Las’ “Past Present Future”; it’s a brazenly kitsch but strangely effective interpretation.
Two songs co-written with Doug Pettibone — the Celtic-tinged title track and the appealing, up-tempo “Eternity” (complete with sample from Brian Jones’ 1968 Morroccan recordings) — both feel fresh and vital, while McGuinness’ “The Old House” is a stellar closer to the album, building from a stately opening to a sensational guitar-heavy finish that then cuts out abruptly, leaving the listener hungry for more.
Though Faithfull can certainly hold her own with a full band, it’s arguably the quieter moments on Horses and High Heels that cut the deepest. Her reading of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” (most widely known through Dusty Springfield’s commanding version) goes far beyond melodrama: it’s understated and moving, with Faithfull digging deeply into the soul of the song. The same goes for a spare and poignant rendering of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” that boasts perhaps the album’s most affecting vocal performance. “Love is the key we must turn/Truth is the flame we must burn/Freedom is the lesson we must learn” Faithfull instructs, and the lines sound like very hard-won wisdom indeed.
In sum, the strong and seamless mixture of new and old material on Horses and High Heels makes the record one of Faithfull’s finest releases. It’s a rewarding and accomplished piece of work from an artist who continues to intrigue and surprise.