Music

Grace Jones: The Grace Jones Story

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?


Grace Jones

The Grace Jones Story

Label: Island
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05
Amazon
iTunes

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

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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10

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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