Wishing Grace Jones a happy 72nd with this post!
Even during exciting eras like disco and the new wave, Grace Jones stood out and made many unique acts sound mundane. These were worldwide phenomenons that define the eighties’ myriad influences, but you won’t find anyone quite like Grace within them. That should say something.
Yes, Grace is a ‘muse’ (after all, she had an album with this name; she excels at it). So much appeal with learning her story is the way connects with fellow artists and producers. I felt I’d learn a new connection with every other page in her memoir. Still, I think it’s crucial to note that so much of that ‘larger than life’ character you see in her collabs revolve on her face, voice and personality in the end. None would wind up the same without her. It’s rare for anyone to mold her for real; she absorbs her surroundings, the extravagance of her voice shines through. No matter how poppy, how disco or how ‘weird’ she got, she rolled with it and made herself the life of the party. Grace brings glamor to anything without trying.
Her supposed ‘narrow’ range as a singer didn’t matter so much to me. I was too busy taking awe in her velvet-like elegance and unique dramatic flair. Her monotone brought hypnotic classics like “Private Life”, while others can rage with passion; let’s not forget “La Vie En Rose”. So often she comes off as this enigma, yet she can radiate this sense of warmth that draws me back again and again.
Most Grace tributes stick to her Sly/Robbie era, if they acknowledge the music, so I thought I’d break this ‘cycle’ by focusing on other eras this time.
1. “I’ll Find My Way To You” (Muse, 1979)
My defense for Disco Grace goes back years: I had each album on vinyl by 2013 and I wrote about “Autumn Leaves” for THE first MAM post. I see where some criticism comes from, since her delivery can grow awkward and on-the-nose, but I think any 70’s disco fan should take a closer look. This eager, younger Grace should endear true fans anyway, and the disco glamor suited her theatrics. Arrangements from the famed Tom Moulton, both punchy and luxurious, helped support her with every great disco trademark.
The interesting thing about Muse (her ‘lost album’) was the added synths. Not enough to make this ~electro-disco~, but with all the syntoms bouncing around like laser beams this makes a colorful decoration. This way, I got a feel for disco’s range through singular songs.
“Find My Way” demonstrates best, with the synths taking on a breezier tone that flourishes perfectly with the strings and and the lyric’s sweet yearning. The result has a nearly Cinderella feeling, painting dreamy portraits of romance in pastel and Technicolor. Disco as an idyllic walk in the park. I can’t believe this wasn’t a single.
2. “Slave To The Rhythm” (6:36 version / Slave To The Rhythm, 1985)
Never stop the action
Keep it up, keep it up
Anyone who says Grace lost her edge after new wave should hear Slave To The Rhythm. Here, Trevor Horn re-assembles her title hit with more creative measures than many modern remixes. Revolutionary at a time where most mainstream ‘remix albums’ boiled down to ‘make song longer with new drums and bass’.
Trevor’s colorful palette shouldn’t surprise Art of Noise fans, and it’s a perfect fit for Grace given her pop-art aesthetics. You have new age lotion in synth form (“The Crossing”), an operatic dance mix and even a fashionable R&B revamp on music from the Bruton library. (“The Fashion Show”; and I heard every Grace album long before I knew a thing about library music!) Funk from eighties heaven meets surreal spa music from Utopia.
“Slave To The Rhythm” is a flashier example (no, this isn’t the single). Matching the lyrics, Trevor mechanizes the go-go rhythms and Grace’s wordless ‘oohh!’ into an earth-shattering force. You have Chic guitars, an infectious mix between digital and organic beats, and synth horns adding quirky chrome futurism.
Grace seems to command this rhythm like her horde, all while dropping some enigma to reveal the upbeat spirit that brought so much charm to her ‘pop’ era. And before you know it? The most heavenly bridge in all 80’s pop, where gentle guitars and background voices wash over like a fountain. This is the same song? And it FITS? Time to kick myself for the hundredth time over hearing so few Horn productions.
3. “Victor Should Have Been A Jazz Musician” (Inside Story, 1986)
I went to a concert, to see Nina, Simone,
The concert was over, there was still a band playing, the rap up…
Hollywood jazz meets sophisti-pop at it’s peak luxury. I’m yet to hear a jazz/pop crossover that captures this much impeccable late-night-cantina romance. Just as “I’ve Done It Again” provided a surprise ballad to close Nightclubbing, “Victor” shows Grace in a wistful, even sensitive light. She plays a dreamer, falling in love and losing herself in this subdued, big-city glamor.
With that sad little keyboard I can feel the guests coming and going, the flickering billboards and a band playing for what feels like forever, serenading everyone. The instrumental break at 3:08 is most hypnotizing with the groovy 80’s guitar that screams of yachts, plus the most haunting trumpet solo I know. Jazz isn’t the first thing I’d expect hearing ‘Grace Jones’ but well… Read that again, this is Grace Jones.
4. “Seduction Surrender” (Bulletproof Heart, 1989)
I’ll always remember
Light inside your love
Bulletproof Heart holds a unanimous status as ‘worst Grace album’. I say you should give it a chance if you appreciate her voice and don’t mind a few predictable lyrics. The mechanized late-80’s beats and cavey reverbs are bound to overwhelm certain people, but such kitsch-futuristic antics fit right in with Grace’s flamboyance.
Some critics will lump Bulletproof with Inside Story, but I’d say that was her sophisti-pop/soul album while this is her ‘party’ album. On the other hand, “Seduction” stands out through it’s weirdness. It sits somewhere between nightclub nightmare and demented cave. Gigantic drums tumble in all directions rather than stick to a simple beat; sampling makes trippy, ambiguous distortions on her own backing voices.
Once again, Grace mixes a powerful delivery with warmth and over-the-top fun. Her jumping from giddy monologues to a theatric sung chorus sounds near-effortless. The result demonstrates her nuance as a vocalist just as well as her prime; I’d LOVE to see it live.
“SS” resembles the theme for a b-movie villain, and sure enough: it originates from her villainous role in Vamp. At least two movie mixes exist. This one loosens further with it’s turbulent melody. Leave it to Grace to make groovy 80’s pop verge on gothic.
5. “Devil In My Life” (Hurricane, 2008)
You’re the architect of my destruction
Hurricane is the best ‘comeback’ album I could want. It modernizes the artist’s classic sound without losing any initial charm. It takes a sound that began unique to new places as Grace sings about new topics herself. No covers here, but the auto-biography feel creates it’s own intrigue. This is ever-mysterious Grace revealing her story here, after all. No matter how long she spent away, certain songs resemble a re-arranged lost entry from her new wave heyday.
Remove Grace’s enormous personality and “Devil” stays a unique instrumental. Isolate the drums and they alone mesh trip hop, slo-mo reggae and gritty electropop. Before half-time rhythms were everywhere, this song was fast and slow at once thanks to it’s bursts of distortion and film-worthy suspense. From the sad, smoky piano that opens it to that vulnerable shiver of strings, this had me wishing she dabbled in orchestral sounds more often. (The one other time I recall aside from this era is her thrill-ride of an Avengers theme, “Storm”.)
The strings throbbing with her voice soaring at the end makes this song one of her most emotionally intense. In one corner, she invokes a long-standing inner fear (Devil in my life / Treading on thin ice / slowly mesmerize / always in disguise). In the other, she has her own sinister aura as she observes a seedy gathering (Collaborate while being exploited, And we celebrate by drinking poison).
What is it about synth-pop that makes it PERFECT for bittersweet, vulnerable ballads? Ignore the cliche that ‘synths have no feeling’ as usual. To think this is the ‘lesser album’ from a ‘lesser artist’ in a ‘fake’ genre (chillwave)… If that’s true, why did I play this 20+ times in January? More important, how wasn’t this a single?
I’m addicted to that intro with the little echoing bell. Cinematic, fierce, even a little tragic. Skyscrapers are peering over the TV credits.
I considered Luxury Elite’s edit a main theme for my mix Is It A Crime?, AKA my ‘dream Miami Vice soundtrack’. At the original pace it’s a slamming euro-disco tune with more urgency than most in it’s genre. It’s that glittery maximalist sound you come to expect, but even with the expected hammy vocal, “Silver” sounds more like a confrontation than another melodramatic love story. Why it wasn’t a single is beyond me.
Opposing Moon’s lighter pop sound, “Yogen” resembles Akina Nakamori’s gothic cult favorite Fushigi. Matching the eye-catching cover, this song chooses to dwell in mystery; the sense of void and landscape is strong. “Yogen” channels a lost cave with the moon as the one light source. Yuki’s voice is a whispered warning shrouded in fog, going from hypnotic hums to a nervous drift. Forming this fog are slick, spacious guitars and a murky fretless bass.
As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.
This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.
It might be a surprise for fans of Britney’s “Toxic” to know the song was written by former 90s pop star Cathy Dennis, the songwriter/co-producer of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (among others on Kylie’s Fever). Cathy offered “Toxic” to Kylie’s album Body Language first, but it was rejected.
In fact, Cathy’s Youtube-surfaced demo sounds near-identical to Britney’s version aside from the vocals, including the signature “Tere Mere Beech Mein” Bollywood sample.
The new Karen O/Danger Mouse collaboration takes plenty of interesting directions in it’s duration, but hearing KO on something like “Nox Lumina” is most thrilling of all. It forms a rich bookend for the album with the ambitious opening single “Lux Prima”, it’s counterpart.
Over an eccentric guitar+synth+string blend, she repeats these cryptic lines over and over:
Somewhere in my room
Sometimes I don’t lock the door
Every time I close my eyes
Someone else’s paradise
Turns me into someone new
She sounds calm but unsteady or even possessed as the melody suggests a lurking danger. Suddenly her voice distorts and slows down along the lines of her wordless wailing in “Lux Prima”. As if it wasn’t fit for a surrealist short film already, “Nox Lumina” ends the album with a reprise of “Prima”’s orchestral flourish like the credits are rolling.
Having major creative control meant Reni Jusis experimented whenever she wanted. This resulted in several exciting twists to her already distinctive take on electro-pop (the existential “Ostatni Raz” to name one), but no Reni song surprised me as much as “Niemy Krzyk”, her most dark-sided to date.
Sometimes on the bottom of my heart I feel that
My life is beyond me again
I cannot carry [on] anymore
I went too far again
Why is it that I live faster
If I don’t enjoy the things I have
I want to run away again
Where nobody will find me
With fragile trance melodies rippling along, the lyrics reveal inner fears behind the dance-DJ glamor she adopted on the Magnes album. The impressive soar in her vocal hammers in the effect.
On Deep Cuts I highlight notable album-only/non-single tracks, especially if they differ from someone’s usual style.
This lengthy suite should surprise you if you figured Dannii’s music boiled down to a more generic/’b-grade’ Kylie. With the downbeat aquatic synths, dramatic whispers and chilly title refrains, it’s closer to a lost Impossible Princess b-side.