Ute Lemper is a gifted vocalist acclaimed for her interpretation of Berlin Cabaret Songs with a particular emphasis on Kurt Weill, in addition to appearances in productions including Cabaret and Chicago. Her recordings have heretofore reflected this repertoire (e.g. Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill and City of Strangers), but Lemper has fulfilled a longstanding desire to record music by significant contemporary songwriters. The resulting album, Punishing Kiss, is deeply entertaining pop noir.
Among the songwriters who either contributed finished pieces or crafted new songs are Tom Waits (“Purple Avenue” and “The Part You Threw Away”), Nick Cave (“Little Water Song”), Scott Walker (“Scope J”), and The Divine Comedy (who provide the crisp and dramatic instrumental backing). Only one Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht song was recorded: The Threepenny Opera’s “The Tango Ballad” (one of two black duets with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon) was included to commemorate of the centenary of Weill’s birth.
In spite of this already select calibre, it is the three songs tailored for Lemper by Elvis Costello that make the most vivid impressions. Her performances of the title song, “Passionate Fight” and “Couldn’t You Keep That To Yourself” are among the most faithful vocal interpretations of Costello’s works.
The original recording of “Punishing Kiss” made a brief appearance in Robert Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts. Lemper’s full-length resurrection presents the story in widescreen: a woman vicariously existing through her favourite midday soap opera, vocally chastising the easily impressionable heroine for submitting to the alpha male’s forced advance and eventually conceding that the habit is perhaps not such a harmless addiction after all (“Hundred ten percent certain and virtually real/If you need something to feel”). The orchestration of “Punishing Kiss” brings to mind Geoff Emerick’s arrangements for Imperial Bedroom; it could be easily imagined that this is what it would have sounded like had Anni-Frid Lyngstad recorded “Seconds of Pleasure.”
“Passionate Fight” (a recent Costello/Nieve collaboration from their song cycle “Correspondence”) is Painted From Memory’s “What’s Her Name Today” shot from a different angle: the storyline involves a man who keeps repeating the same pattern, replicating each relationship from his desire to remake each successive woman into the image of a predecessor (“As he hangs the clothes on the back of the door/Perfectly matching outfits that she wore”) to the final angry confrontation that drives them away from him. His paramour, seeing the pattern, points out this self-sabotage: “this isn’t love, it’s what you do in spite of it.”
“Couldn’t You Keep That To Yourself” is the most contemporary of the three in terms of Costello’s own recordings (it would fit perfectly in place on All This Useless Beauty). “Couldn’t You Keep That To Yourself” is carefully articulated piece de resistance of bitterness. Even the bridge, which purports of redemption, is full of weariness. (It also isn’t clear that the singer is in character, unlike the other selections of Punishing Kiss, which are more obviously theatrical or cinematic in their approach, so the effect is more personal.)
©2000 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.