20th Century Blues
REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/21/2009
For her twelfth album of original material, Marianne Faithfull finally decided to record something that had been talked about some ten years earlier with producer Hal Willner. He had produced an album, Lost In The Stars, that featured the songs of Kurt Weill covered by an array of artists, including Sting, Tom Waits, and Lou Reed.
Marianne cut a great version of “Ballad Of The Soldier’s Wife” that triggered Willner to suggest the two of them record a whole album of songs from composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht’s catalogue. While that idea never came to fruition, it did inspire the hauntingly superb Strange Weather LP that Willner and Faithfull recorded together in 1987.
Ten years later, Marianne decided to produce an album of live recordings herself that would cover her favorite Weill/Brecht songs and some other selections from the era of the Weimar Republic. Marianne’s obsession with that particular period in history came from childhood stories told to her by both her mother and grandmother. Faithfull’s mother was a Baroness from the old Austral-Hungarian Empire, and as a child had ballet lessons in the very studio where Weill and Brecht were writing The Threepenny Opera.
Some of these songs had already become second nature to Faithfull after she had performed them during her acclaimed An Evening In The Weimar Republic tour, following the show’s unveiling at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music. The bulk of 20th Century Blues is made up of from show recorded at The New Morning Club in Paris, with additional tracks recorded live at Wessex Studios in London. Accompanied by only pianist Paul Trueblood and bassist Chuchow, Faithfull is simply breathtaking all through this album, and not only is her voice tailor-made for these songs, her phrasing here is second to none.
Of course, Marianne’s obvious admiration for the German cabaret and its most famous star Marlene Dietrich is clearly audible throughout the show, but somehow this master interpreter makes these songs her own with an alarming ease. Having a very limited appeal (especially in America), Marianne took a great risk in devoting so much time to this project, but her determination to make it work was rewarded by the sold-out shows and rave reviews from critics in both the States and Europe.
Faithfull is in great form here, and if her onstage banter is anything to go by, she was clearly having a blast singing these great old songs. Her reading of “Alabama Song” is a modern take on the original, but it works just as well and leads beautifully into the gorgeous classic “Want To Buy Some Illusions,” which was written by Friedrich Hollaender for the 1948 film A Foreign Affair, directed by Billy Wilder.
Marianne played the part of Pirate Jenny in her close friend Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Here she delivers the song “Pirate Jenny” with conviction and an obvious familiarity from her time in the play. Another track taken from The Threepenny Opera (and I should mention that all of the songs here from that play feature the translations of Brecht’s lyrics by McGuinness) is “Salomon Song,” on which Faithfull gives a wonderful, restrained performance. A new interpretation of “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” (from Strange Weather) fits superbly into the mix alongside the very music that inspired it.
During Kurt Weill’s forced exile in Paris due to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he wrote “Complante De La Seine” with Maurice Magre. It’s an odd song that Marianne manages to pull off, but only just. Another war story song written by Weill and Brecht during their exile in America (this time due to WWII) is “The Ballad Of The Soldier’s Wife,” which was inspired by an actual letter a soldier wrote to his wife following the battle at Stalingrad. “Mon Ami, My Friend” is a rare upbeat number from the doldrums of war dealing with death and eternal love. This is followed by a stunning reading of “Falling In Love Again,” the song made famous by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film, The Blue Angel.
“Mack The Knife” is here as well, and although it’s probably the best known song from the Weill/Brecht catalogue, Faithfull brings it back to its cabaret roots as it was originally intended to be as part of The Threepenny Opera. The title-track is the only English song on the album; it was written by Noel Coward, and although Faithfull has a love/hate relationship with Coward’s work, the song sounds right at home among the rest of the material. Another song that fits in so well is the only contemporary one to be included here, Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” which Marianne handles remarkably well.
Two of the best (and oldest) songs of the Weill/Brecht coffers close out the album in style. “Surabaya Johnny” and “Street Singers Farewell” are delivered by Faithfull with a great deal of cynicism, spite, and black humor as only she can. Once again, Marianne’s interpretive skills are on display throughout the entire disc, serving as a reminder of a true artist who constantly challenges herself and is constantly rewarded for doing so.
20th Century Blues was a daring and brave undertaking, but Faithfull had enough confidence in herself and the material that she made it sound authentic, effortless, and wholly original. For us fans, it’s no great surprise because we’ve seen it so many times before from her. For those of you still unacquainted with this incredible woman, you might want to start somewhere else, however, because this kind of music is not for everyone. It is nevertheless an essential album in Faithfull’s eclectic bag of goodies, and one that she is still immensely proud of.
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