Ute Lemper

Punishing Kiss

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Ute Lemper has developed a reputation as a successor to Lotte Lenya with the looks of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, a northern European chanteuse with a taste for the decadent sound of Weimar Germany; she is arguably the definitive interpreter of Kurt Weill for her generation. Punishing Kiss, her first album devoted primarily to songs by contemporary songwriters, extends her reputation by incorporating the work of artists influenced by Weill. Many listeners not previously familiar with her will be drawn in by the presence of previously unrecorded songs by Elvis Costello (who contributed three selections), Tom Waits (two), and Nick Cave (one). But the primary collaborators on the album are the members of the British group the Divine Comedy, who provide the backing tracks on most of the songs, and three compositions by group members Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot, with Hannon singing duet vocals on three tracks. The sound of Weill -- the early Weill -- pervades the album, starting with the inclusion of his "Tango Ballad" (aka "Zuhälter-Ballade" or "Ballad of Immoral Earnings"), written with Bertolt Brecht, from The Threepenny Opera, a song in which a couple reminisce about the good old days when he was a procurer and she a prostitute. Such a decadent tone continues in Cave and Bruno Pisek's "Little Water Song," sung by a woman who is being drowned by her lover, and Philip Glass and Martin Sherman's "Streets of Berlin," originally written for the film Bent; in Costello's complex tales of romantic dissolution with titles like "Passionate Fight" and "Punishing Kiss" (reminiscent of his work on the Burt Bacharach album Painted from Memory); and in the characteristic Waits songs of romantic low-life types. Among the most impressive selections, however, are the Divine Comedy tracks "The Case Continues," a song about a romantic breakup written as if describing a murder mystery, and "Split," which finds Lemper and Hannon hurling witty insults at each other. From its extensive set of photographs of Lemper in black leather posing in a decaying building to the dramatic arrangements and the singer's powerful, precise vocals, this is highly stylized art music given a pop element by its composers. A daring effort, it deserves more of an audience than it is likely to get, at least at first. (The European edition of the album has a different sequencing and features a different cover. For the Quebecois and French markets, Lemper recorded French versions of "The Case Continues" and "Little Water Song." The Japanese version used the European sequencing and added a bonus track, "Lullaby.")

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