Marianne Faithfull – Strange Weather – Island Records/ORG 180 gram audiophile 45 rpm (2-12” discs) ****½:
(Marianne Faithfull – vocals, tambourine; Bill Frisel – guitar; Mac Rebennack – piano, electric piano; Michael Levine – violin; Sharon Freeman – piano; Fernando Saunders – bass; J.T. Lewis – drums; Garth Hudson – accordion; Robert Quine – guitar; Chris Hunter – alto saxophone, flute; Steve Slagle – alto sax; William Schimmel – accordion; Lew Soloff – trumpet)
Marianne Faithfull is as well known for her role in Sixties English pop culture as her career as a singer. Her first single, “As Tears Go By” was written by the Rolling Stones, whose lives intersected with hers on personal and business matters. Some of the groups hits were inspired by her, and a legal battle resulted in her eventual songwriting credit on Sister Morphine (from the iconic Sticky Fingers). However, she was a gifted singer whose career was sidetracked by drug abuse. Despite this insidious lifestyle, she managed to release albums. By the late eighties, she reinvented herself as a blues and jazz singer.
First released in 1987 (following a sixteen year battle with heroin addiction), Strange Weather is a dark eclectic group of songs that combine blues, jazz and Kurt Weill-esque ambiance. Supported by a cadre of topnotch musicians, the album evokes a surreal exotic flavor that blends with the idiosyncratic vocals of Faithfull. Side One opens with a gypsy-tinged take on the Dubin/Warren standard, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”. Veteran guitarist, Bill Frisel teams with violinist Michael Levine to create a haunting café-flavored line that is framed nicely around the deep Marlene Dietrich alto voice of Faithfull. The effect is haunting, reminiscent of French (Edith Piaf) cabaet music. The same chemistry permeates “Yesterdays” as Frisell adds jazzy melancholy. Small touches, like flute (Chris Hunter) and string accompaniment build a texture that surrounds the tune.
Faithfull’s singing prowess is matched by her versatility. The vocals have a certain weariness that define pieces like Huddie Ledbetters” “I Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No More” (done a capella) and a straightforward fifties blues duet with legendary New Orleans piano man Mac Rebennack on “Love, Life And Money”. Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) executes a series of spirited riffs that bring down the house. A cover of an early Dylan piece, (“I’ll Keep It Mine”) evokes the progressive folk sound of the mid sixties, popularized by inventive chord structures. Faithfull holds her own with the unconventional, sometimes challenging vocal phrasing of Dylan.
What makes this project so unusual is the originality of the arrangements. The title track by Tom Waits (written for this session) epitomizes the eccentricity of this music. Garth Hudson’s accordion emulates a Parisian carnival spookiness that meshes with the languid gravelly vocals and relaxed tempo. Another original, “Hello Stranger” (Doc Pomus/ Rebennack) has a rolling groove and dual alto saxophones. “Penthouse Serenade” sounds like a throwback to the big band era with string and horn configurations. An ethereal reincarnation of her prior success “As Tears Go By” pays homage to the Rolling Stones. Regardless of genre, Faithfull injects her intriguing vocal nuances and inflections. While peculiar at times, the music is engaging.
ORG’s masterful 45 rpm vinyl continue to make the case that high end analog audio technology is comparable or superior to its digital counterpart. The organic coloration of the instrumentation is showcased by this format. Subtle touches with a clarinet, flute or horn are soft and remain in the background. The unique throaty vocals have a natural resonance.
Strange Weather captures an underappreciated singer at her best.
Side One: Stranger Intro; Boulevard Of Broken Dreams; I Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No More; Yesterdays
Side Two; Sign Of Judgement; Strange Weather; Love, Life And Money
Side Three: I’ll Keep It Mine; Hello Stranger; Penthouse Serenade
Side Four: As Tears Go By; A Stranger On Earth
— Robbie Gerson