Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Strange Weather - The Tumultuous Re-Emergence of Grace Jones (Part Two)



Read Part One...

Piecing things together from some of her recent interviews, frustrated with the apparent fruitlessness of her recording endeavours, she claims to have pretty much left the studio completely during the first few years of the decade, with little interest or plan in returning. That would eventually change upon meeting producer/ film composer and British aristocrat, Ivor Guest. She described the meeting in an interview in the Autumn '08 issue of Pop Magazine:
Guest is British Blue blood, the Fourth Viscount Wimborne, and has worked most famously as a film composer. He was introduced to Jones by Philip Treacy, the British milliner whom Jean Paul Goude had suggested as a potential new art director for the corporate engagements and one-off gigs that were keeping her financially afloat in the fallow recording years.
“He came to Philip’s one evening when I was in [London] town. At the time, of course, I didn't want to do music. I had stopped. I think Philip had told Ivor ‘You can come over, but just have dinner and be social and do not talk about music.’ Then the second time he had brought me a track. It just suddenly got very inspiring. Then I went back and looked at the tracks I was doing before. It started this whole chemistry...

In 2003 it was reported that Guest and Grace were not only a creative team, but reportedly engaged, with the unconventional prospect of Viscountess Grace setting tongues wagging in the British gossip press. What wasn’t quite as widely reported on the musical side was a reunion with Sly & Robbie at Scotland's Tryptich Festival that year in what was billed as a 'comeback performance,' foreshadowing their eventual reunion on record. As well there was also Grace and Ivor's budding creative collaboration, of which the first low-key reports came in 2004 from arranger Philip Sheppard’s website, where he reported working on string sessions for a forthcoming Grace Jones record (which later became the track “Devil In My Life”).. Despite having no apparent record label commitment, in the time between then and the eventual album release, the only major updates seemed to come via Ivor Guest's Myspace and Grace’s Wikipedia page, which was continuously updated with details of the forthcoming record, and disseminated by fans..

Initially titled “Corporate Cannibal,” judging from articles and Wikipedia updates, the album was reported to have been completed along with director Nick Hooker’s video for the then title track in early 2007, with Ivor & Ant Genn as producer, contributions from Guest collaborator and electronic music prodigy Robert Logan and even Brian Eno (who is credited as a production consultant) cited as prime collaborators. The first tangible, though tentative hints of the results came later that year in May, where the first track from the project leaked out. The tracks, two versions of a track called “This” and another called “Volunteer” were previewed on the blog of Leslie Winer, a musician/poet and former model, who has been referred to as the “godmother of trip-hop.” The second leaked version of “This” would prove to the the final version, eventually released on “Hurricane” as “This Is..” however, the remix and the other track, “Volunteer” were suspected to have come from from the shelved “Black Marilyn” project. In her blog entry, Winer claims she and a friend, Joe Galdo (formerly of the disco group Foxy, curiously) had originally written the song, but had apparently been stiffed of credit on Grace's version, in what she called a 'publishing grab.'

Leaks aside, another low-key preview of the upcoming album happened earlier that same month, on her birthday, no less. On May 19th, Grace made a surprise appearance with her son Paulo at the small Sonic Boom Electronic & Experimental Arts Festival in Coventry in support of one of one of her and Guest's main collaborators, Robert Logan. She joined him onstage for a performance of “Nightclubbing,” which, especially in retrospect, seemed to drop a few hints on the sound of the upcoming album. The surprise performance was captured for posterity and posted to YouTube months later:



Grace Jones live with Robert Logan on her birthday
Uploaded by simonhayden

The same year, she made a brief appearance at the 2007 Meltdown Festival (curated that year by Jarvis Cocker), in what one writer called one of the festival's “golden moments” as part of Hal Willner's revue of the Disney Songbook. It wasn't until over a year later, this past June, when Grace was brought back; this time as a headliner, with a full show and a full band, showcasing her hits and forthcoming material, and effectively stealing the show at 2008's Meltdown (curated by Massive Attack), that the return of Grace Jones felt, at long last, real and imminent.



Grace Jones @ Meltdown (18 June 2008): I've Seen That Face Before
Uploaded by boris99gj

Reportedly starting her set some 30 minutes late (which seems quite punctual for Grace), the forthcoming reviews were universally positive, many practically gushing forth with what seemed like long withheld praise. It wasn't long after that the video of Corporate Cannibal, initially captured on digital video by festival goers, proceeded to go viral on the blogosphere, amid the news of her signing with indie label Wall of Sound. With the album having been wisely re-titled “Hurricane,” a title much more worthy of her iconic status, the album, four years in the making, and 19 years in the waiting, finally saw it’s release at the start of November, some five months later.

Opening with an incisive, bold declaration: “this is my voice, my weapon of choice” on “This Is..”, between the record’s darkness and light, compared to the stylistic exercises of her earlier work, the themes on the album are both loftier and more personal, making “Hurricane” as perhaps her most complete statement on record thus far.

The timely lead single “Corporate Cannibal” makes the perfect foil for Grace’s intimidating, predatory persona in conveying it's lyrical indictment of western corporate culture. The results can perhaps be described as Massive Attack-meets-Naomi Klein, with Grace out front. While, on the surface Grace may not be anyone's idea of an astute socio-political commentator, the widescreen, cinematic production, Nick Hooker’s menacingly minimal visual statement, along with concept of the album's cover art, the chocolate Graces on the production line (which seems to bear the closest connection to this track's theme), combined with Grace’s persona as the vehicle, will likely render this one of Grace's most salient musical statements. A subject she claimed she had long been wanting to write about, partly relating to her own experience with the record conglomerates, she discussed the song in a video interview on Myspace and a print interview with The Telegraph:

Talk of current affairs brings us back to Corporate Cannibal, a song that Jones had been "holding in for a long long time. People hear that line 'I'm a man-eating machine' and they think it's about sex but it's not. It's about a monster, a multinational skyscraper munching people in off the street. Its about the way these corporations chew us all up. And now they're all eating each other. There's a meltdown and we have this economic crisis. But I watch the news and I just think: 'Let the dying die'. None of it was ever real, it was all fantasy money…but then they end up taking the real money from the ordinary people and that makes me angry."

On the more personal side, some of the album’s most sublime, revelatory moments come on both the current single, “Williams Blood” and “I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears),” the latter casting Grace in what must be her most vulnerable role on record. While Grace has never been known as a top purveyor of recorded intimacy, she manages to achieve it here. The former, “Williams Blood,“ - a writing collaboration with Wendy & Lisa that apparently dates back to the early 90‘s is one of the standouts on the album. While the intro with it’s unironic dead-serious recitation of “Amazing Grace” may strike some as veering thisclose to total self-parody, the track quickly redeems itself. An epic, autobiographical reflection on her familial identity and independence, complete with churchy chorus in the back, the song vacillates between vulnerable reflection “..When are you gonna be a Jones, like your sister and your brother Noel,” swiftly rising to a tense rage and release “I’ve got the Williams blood in me!..” Apparently Grace initially intended for "Slave To The Rhythm" super-producer Trevor Horn to helm the track, which unfortunately never came to pass. As it stands here, regardless of it’s limitations (there are moments - cleverly covered by the background choir - where the song seems to go a bit beyond Grace’s vocal range), it’s perhaps most representative of the vibe of the album overall. Opening up the personality, without compromising the persona, it's a brilliantly balanced revelation.

The Grace Jones News fan blog, just announced the release of the official video for "Williams' Blood," which is basically a montage of scenes from her Meltdown Festival performance this past June.


Grace Jones - Williams Blood
Uploaded by miohmy

I have to say, it's a bit of a letdown, given that a video was set to be directed by Chris Cunningham (Madonna, Björk etc..), who had photographed Grace for the November '08 issue of Dazed & Confused, so not sure if that's even still in the works anymore, or if this is a stop-gap measure. In other videos though, there are several live performances of "Williams' Blood" making the rounds on YouTube, including this beautifully staged, and slightly mad performance from Later.. with Jools Holland. It's been posted almost everywhere, but it's just too good to pass up:



Grace Jones - Williams' Blood (live at Later...)
Uploaded by RadioMad

In what was either a curious lapse in judgement, a brilliant bit of viral marketing or perhaps both, shortly after Williams' Blood was announced as a single, a remix by the Belgian duo Aeroplane, upon supposedly being rejected by Grace's camp, quickly went viral on the blogosphere. The resulting outcry evidently convinced the label to officially release it on the 12” release. A stellar mix, retaining the feeling of the original, both it's warmth and intensity, yet shifting it's musical context over a sharp, hypnotic electronic sheen. Of all the officially released mixes, it remains the most effective. While the Aeroplane main mix has made the rounds over the last little while, here's a link to the Aeroplane dub:

Listen: Grace Jones - Williams' Blood (Aeroplane Dub)

Just prior to that, the first mixes to leak were a couple of anonymous mixes – a “Cosmic Jam” and “Electric Dub” released on a bootleg 12” sent out to retailers. It was eventually found out that the versions on the bootleg promo were the rejected Yam Who? remixes. While not quite as excellent as the Aeroplane remix, the Yam Who remixes do a good job of accessibly recasting the track over a more laid-back groove, particularly the more rhythmic Cosmic Jam, which is perhaps my favourite of the two.

Listen: Grace Jones - Williams' Blood (Yam Who? Cosmic Jam)
Listen: Grace Jones - Williams' Blood (Yam Who? Electric Dub)

"Hurricane," the album's title track is, quite appropriately, the album’s centrepiece of iconography. Reinforcing and drawing upon Grace Jones' Amazonian mythology, it's one of those things that is unequivocally, distinctively Grace. One of the fruits of her and Tricky’s late 90’s collaboration, there are probably few, or no figures in music with the force of personality to personify themselves in such a way ("I am woman, I am son.. I can give birth to she, I can give birth to son"), as a literal force of nature, ("ripping up.. lifting up.. tearing down trees") with any degree of seriousness and pull it off the way Grace does here. Despite having been one of the most unofficially circulated Grace Jones tracks of the past decade, the final version here, with it's much more textured, cohesive production, is a definite improvement on all the previously leaked versions.

Much of the album’s second half sees a reunion with the likes of Sly & Robbie, Uziah "Sticky" Thompson, Mikey ‘Mao’ Chung and Wally Badarou, formerly of the Compass Point All-Stars. Their glory days are most obviously revisited in "Well Well Well." Dedicated to her former producer, the late Alex Sadkin and co-written by Jones and Barry Reynolds, one of her most reliable collaborators in the early 80’s, it's one of the most instant tracks on the album. Musically, with those drums at the top, it sounds like the direct descendant of “Private Life,” or at the very least, a lost remnant of the "Warm Leatherette" sessions.

Adorned by the sticky dub grooves and basslines reminiscent of her early 80’s records, underpinned by the cinematic sonic pallette of Ivor Guest & Ant Genn, “Love You To Life” and “Sunset Sunrise” on the album’s final stretch is where the sound of Classic Grace most clearly meets her more current ambitions. The esoteric meanderings of “Love You To Life” and “Sunset Sunrise” (co-written by son Paulo) with Grace cast as conscious earth mother are perhaps some of the best showcases for the warmth and the more serious depth of Grace's voice. It's a side of her voice that, on this album, has had some of it's most credible exposure.

Devil In My Life,” co-written by long time collaborator Bruce Woolley, and which reportedly dates back to the early 90's perfectly concludes the album. Dominated by Phillip Sheppard's sweeping string arrangements, a highly cinematic production steeped in drama and (self-)destruction (?), it's production following a similar vein as “Storm” from the late 90's, it's perhaps one of the most ambitious, darkly epic productions she's ever put her name to.

After 19 years and the unmitigated major label disaster that was her last album, “Bulletproof Heart” (1989, Capitol) which even Grace herself has deemed the low-point of her catalogue, “Hurricane” has proved to be a pointed, auspicious return to form. The meeting of Grace's sound and image feel, for the first time in years, truly and completely right. Perfectly timed, at a period when pop culture was awash with 1980's references, with fashion and emerging pop figures from the likes of Róisín Murphy, to Santogold, Sam Sparro and others citing her influence, with the album reminding people what made her famous and influential, yet at the same time moving forward with a strong, clear creative vision, Grace and those around her have managed to master that delicate equation of all successful comebacks. True to her nature, instead of taking the more well travelled routes for artists of her age, the dance diva route or that of the oldies songbooks, Grace and those around her have ably managed to not so much regain but retain her relevance. Having never been an artist defined by numbers in the first place, Grace, without any significant commercial compromise, has successfully regained the attention of the same cross-section of the public - the more discerning of pop audiences, as well as the more forward, influential underground audiences that she has always commanded. With 2008 being a year of high profile comebacks in the music industry, while not the loudest, or even the most highly anticipated, Grace's return will likely go down as one of the more well-executed returns of 2008.

While much has been made of the album's similarity in sound to Massive Attack's "Mezzanine" (1998, Virgin), there's nothing on this album that truly feels dated. While much of the album's songs have been kicking around for the better part of the past two decades, and while it's not even Grace's first effort at personal reflection and social commentary (see her 1986 “Inside Story” album for earlier examples of both), when the results are this good and this strong, it hardly matters. Previously covered up by jaunty production (see “Inside Story”), buried beneath awkward attempts at accessibility and trendiness (see “Bulletproof Heart”), or stalled by various professional difficulties in the 90's, “Hurricane” emerges as a clear, complete and articulate expression of what appear to be some of Grace's long held artistic ambitions.

Given her track record however, this hopefully won't be destined to be another stalled, one-off either. So far, it looks promising. After four years of working on this record, Grace has suggested that there is enough material left over for a follow-up. Meanwhile, not neglecting her own visual impact, an intriguing documentary film project, reportedly some five years in the making, is reportedly on the horizon. Directed by Sophie Fiennes (who had previously worked on a feature about Grace's brother Bishop Noel Jones) and evidently titled "The Musical Of My Life," it looks like there are still more surprises in store for the future.

Always one hell-bent on flouting convention and expectation; much like her own shows, Grace has only ever shown up on her time, when she's truly ready. However long it may take, and however frustrating or agonizing the wait may sometimes be, as this record has proved, the results are usually worth waiting for.

Some notable Grace links:
Jody Watley talks about meeting Grace on her Myspace blog
Grace Jones News - An excellent fan blog

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
STRANGE WEATHER - THE TUMULTUOUS RE-EMERGENCE OF GRACE JONES (PART ONE) (WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 24, 2008)
DEAR SANTA.. (WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 24, 2008)
THE RETURN OF GRACE JONES? (FRIDAY JUNE 20, 2008)
RÓISÍN MURPHY AND SOME OTHER NEWER SHIT THAT GETS ME ALL EXCITED.. (THURSDAY APRIL 17, 2008)
NO HITTIN' BELOW THE BELT.. (THURSDAY JUNE 29, 2006)
DISCO REISSUES UPDATE (MARCH 17TH - APRIL 12TH (THURSDAY MARCH 16, 2006)

PURCHASE:
GRACE JONES - HURRICANE CD
AMAZON.CO.UK | CD WOW | PLAY.COM

GRACE JONES - HURRICANE (DIGITAL ALBUM)
iTUNES UK | AMAZON.CO.UK | PLAY.COM

GRACE JONES - WILLIAMS BLOOD 12''
JUNO.CO.UK | ROUGH TRADE SHOPS

GRACE JONES - WILLIAMS BLOOD (DIGITAL SINGLE)
iTUNES UK | PLAY.COM

LINKS:
GRACE JONES NEWS
GRACE JONES - HURRICANE @ DISCOGS
WIKIPEDIA: GRACE JONES - HURRICANE

THE AUSTRALIAN - OH BABY, THERE IS ALWAYS DRAMA (BY MICHAEL SAINSBURY) (JANUARY 1, 2009)
DAILY MAIL - THE DAY I MET THE DEVIL IN MS. JONES (BY DYLAN JONES) (DECEMBER 20, 2008)
GAYDARRADIO.COM - GRACE JONES INTERVIEW (DECEMBER 8, 2008)
THE INDEPENDENT - GRACE JONES UNMASKED: A POP DIVA REVEALS ALL (BY JOHN WALSH) (SATURDAY DECEMBER 6, 2008)
AN AUDIENCE WITH GRACE JONES (BY MICHAEL OSBORN) (WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 26, 2008)
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD - KEEPING UP WITH GRACE JONES (BY HELEN BROWN) (NOVEMBER 7, 2008) DAILY MAIL - 'IT'S HARD BEING A FREAK!' (GRACE JONES INTERVIEW) (BY LISA SEWARDS) (NOVEMBER 7, 2008)
THE TELEGRAPH - GRACE JONES AT 60 (BY HELEN BROWN) (NOVEMBER 4, 2008)
SHROPSHIRE STAR - GRACE JONES INTERVIEW (OCTOBER 22, 2008)
THE OBSERVER - STATE OF GRACE: MIRANDA SAWYER MEETS GRACE JONES (SATURDAY OCTOBER 11, 2008)
IN CONVERSATION WITH GRACE JONES (WITH ANDREW HORNERY) (JUNE 30, 2008)

METACRITIC: GRACE JONES - HURRICANE
THE VILLAGE VOICE - GRACE JONES'S HURRICANE PAYS SELF-TRIBUTE TO AN ICON (BY BARRY WALTERS) (TUESDAY DECEMBER 16, 2008)
SLANT MAGAZINE - GRACE JONES: HURRICANE (BY ERIC HENDERSON) (DECEMBER 9, 2008)
PITCHFORK - GRACE JONES: HURRICANE (BY JOSHUA KLEIN) (NOVEMBER 21, 2008)
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD: GRACE JONES - HURRICANE (BY BERNARD ZUEL) (NOVEMBER 8, 2008)
TIMEOUT LONDON ALBUM REVIEW: GRACE JONES - HURRICANE (BY PHIL HARRISON) (MONDAY OCTOBER 27, 2008)
THE GUARDIAN - ROCK & POP REVIEW: GRACE JONES - HURRICANE (BY ALEXIS PETRIDIS) (OCTOBER 24, 2008)

CATEGORIES: ARTICLES & RAMBLINGS, MINI DELIVERIES, NUDISCO, VISUAL DISCO, DISCO NEWS

9 comments:

Brad said...

By far, the most comprehensive Grace write-up I've read yet.

So many thanks for this one :)

M.E. Grant said...

So when is your music encyclopedia coming out, Tommy?
The analysis of Grace Jones' journey to the "Hurricane" album is very respectful of your readers. If only reviews were typically written to put an artist's work in context this way. I anticipated a stunning video for "Williams' Blood," so I hope some other version will surface. Then again, what we have in the meantime lives up to the lyrics in other ways. She's on stage demonstrating the wickedness she embraces. Some shots make it look like she's holding court at Studio 54. I think she gets the prize for last year's best comeback. There's not one moment on the album where she betrays herself.

Tommy said...

Hey Brad - No problem! Thanks for the feedback :)

M.E. Grant - Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I definitely tried to bring some added context to the album. I suppose that's part of the privilege (or downside, depending on your perspective) of having a blog, being able to cover as much as I want and be as long winded as I'd like.. Anyway, I agree, the live footage is nice, regardless of what could have been. If anything, I'm glad that her performance at Meltdown was professionally recorded, which is encouraging. At least those shaky YouTube digital captures won't serve as the only video record of the event. If we don't see another video, at this point, I'm looking forward to hearing more on this documentary by Sophie Fiennes. I'm wondering how they'll pull that one off..

Anonymous said...

fantastic write-up!

Dean said...

Fantastic overview of this mysterious few years and the evolution of "Hurricane." The album is so good that it seems to have been worth the wait. Thank you for taking the time to write and edit this fascinating piece!

-Dean

professor Eddy said...

What a story! What I like about Williams' Blood is the 'Pull Up To The Bumper feel' of the song. The two are quite familiar, I think. I like Grace ever since La Vie En Rose. My personal favourite is I've Seen That Face Before.

Mike said...

I've been meaning to comment on your Grace posts for some time now. Your post is just so thorough and brilliantly researched. I consider myself a fairly knowledgable Grace fan but I learnt a lot. Keep up the amazing work!

Anonymous said...

hey hey, congratulations on a fantastic article. grace has always been a hard one to get information on, even in this internet age. your research is amazing. i really enjoyed it. cheers!

Anonymous said...

http://soundcloud.com/jamiemango/grace-jones-the-fashion-show

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