Monday, February 27, 2012

Scary, But Fun: The Music of Grace Jones

The origin of Grace Jones has become a colorful page in the book of Cinderella stories. Born in Jamaica, later she was raised in New York. There her studies fell into acting and fashion focus. Jones strolled into modeling, traipsing around New York City and Paris.

Securing a record contract, Jones became one of the most visual figures in popular music culture. Many associate Jones with her image only and while revolutionary even today, Jones is a singer, a songwriter. At present, she has made her "return" to music with fanfare to spare at the age of 63. The fuel that fires Jones is expression, she dons chameleon tendencies that can only be celebrated and expounded upon.

"Well, I finally got my wish to work in New York City...": 1977-1979

Once Jones procured her record deal by signing with an indie called Beam Junction, acquired by Island Records, she began work on her debut Portfolio. At this time, disco was entrenched in both mainstream and underground culture. In many ways, Jones' sound maintained its affection toward the underground scene. That said, it didn't stop Jones from lending a certain shimmer to Portfolio that gave it even wider acceptance out of the clubs.

Tom Moulton, one of the leading men in production during this era, produced Portfolio and the two subsequent albums: Fame (1978) and Muse (1979). His productions were characterized by instrumentation that highlighed Jones' vocal potency. The swell of "La Vie En Rose," popularized by chanteuse Edith Piaf, saw Jones flexing her rich espresso tones. Softer than her later work in the early '80s, "La Vie En Rose" laid claim to Jones' French pop fetish, which always marched throughout her sound in some form or another. Portfolio was also home to "I Need a Man," considered a drag queen performance staple. It glued Jones to her other platform for an artistic out, live performance. Rubies from Sondheim ("Send in the Clowns") and the 1977 Annie musical ("Tomorrow") filled Portfolio. Jones' second long player Fame was more of the same, albeit stronger. The first side led off with the declaratory "Do or Die." "Autumn Leaves," attributed firstly to French vocalist Cora Vaucaire, appeared and showed that Jones was eager to improve on her vocal craft.

Muse sought to conceptually empower Jones the third go round. Two Jones written compositions materialized, "Repentance (Forgive Me)" and "Don't Mess With the Messer". Before Muse, Jones had one song each appear on Portfolio ("Sorry") and Fame ("Below the Belt"). The first side dealt with notions of sin, redemption, fidelity and the like. Funky, hot, with shades of (tasteful) camp, Jones burned through "Sinning," "Suffer" (a duet with Swede session man Thor Baldursson), the mentioned "Repentance," and "Saved". Elsewhere, Jones bewitched with the beach ready "I'll Find My Way to You" yet foreshadowed the next phase of her sound with "On Your Knees." Jones' first trio of albums presented a brighter Grace Jones than what the public knew of her in the next decade. It's clear that disco-pop was good to Jones and she to it.

Grace @ The Roseland Performing "Autumn Leaves," Circa 1978

"I'm very superficial, I hate everything official...": 1980-1985

Grace Jones completely overhauled her look and sound at the dawn of the '80's. Packing away her disco pastels, Jones was aided by session players/producers Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Chris Blackwell, and (the departed) Alex Sadkin. Recorded in the Compass Point Studios, Warm Leatherette (1980) and Nightclubbing (1981) looked to the songbooks of other artists for Jones to redesign. Fantastic stand outs from both albums included "Warm Leatherette" (The Normal), "Private Life" (The Pretenders), "Use Me" (Bill Withers), and "Nightclubbing" (David Bowie). The stated songs blended caustic guitar, dubby reggae, and synth-pop-cum-punk attitude. Atop these musical amalgams, Jones sat in the driver seat giving off cold, sexy performances that made the songs hers.

Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing brought Jones commercial success (usually on the U.K., U.S. R&B, and U.S. Dance charts) and critical awards. Among the cover laden Nightclubbing Jones contributed her own works in the sweaty "Pull Up to the Bumper" and the weird, Parisian "I've Seen that Face Before (Libertango)." "Libertango" originally was a piece of music by Astor Piazzolla, Jones supplied her own lyrics to accompany the score. Jones turned in an album of her own works after proving herself as an interpreter with Living My Life (1982). The Compass Point team appeared again and the arrangements were loose and funky. The beautiful mess included the gyrating "Nipple to the Bottle" and the island rinsed patois of "My Jamaican Guy." The latter became immortalized in hip-hop forever when it was tapped as the sample basis for LL Cool J's "Doin' It" from Mr. Smith (1994). By now, Grace Jones was a full blown celebrity in music and modeling and took Hollywood by storm: Conan the Destroyer (1984), A View to a Kill (1985), and Vamp (1986).

Before Vamp, Jones underwent another sonic change with Slave to the Rhythm (1985). Her last album of original material for Island Records, Slave was produced by Trevor Horn. They co-created the album which cycled one song, the title track, into several vignettes and set pieces. Whether redrawn as the swift "Operattack" or the laid back "Jones the Fashion Show," Jones knew no barrier. The original "Slave to the Rhythm" is a favorite for Grace Jones today. "The Frog & The Princess" featured Ian McShane reciting from photographer Jean-Paul Goude's book Jungle Fever. The passage read throughout the song refers to Goude meeting Jones, their friendship, subsequent courtship, creation of the iconic One Man Show (1981), their son Paulo's birth and eventual platonic full circle gave Slave further layers of avant garde sensibility. Altered when pressed to CD, the original vinyl version has yet to see a remastered compact disc or digital return.

Capping off her Island Records tenure, Island Life (1985) anthologized Jones' work. Several singles across her seven albums were missing and to date there hasn't been a complete singles collection issued. The album jacket became noted for its Amazonian flavor and influenced hosts of albums covers in the next two decades, specifically Kylie Minogue's Fever (2001). Jones' second era made her a household name, containing her most provocative material (visually and musically). But Jones' travels weren't over just yet.

"Private Life"
Directed By: Mike Mansfield

"This is my voice, my weapon of choice...": 1986-Present Day

After Jones' departure from Island Records, she found a new label home in Manhattan Records. There, work started on her eighth studio product Inside Story (1986). Nile Rodgers, member of the cosmopolitan disco-soul group Chic, oversaw the proceedings. Rodgers had become a popular producer and worked over records for David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, and Deborah Harry (of Blondie) to finger some of the talent. Rumored to be a difficult process for Jones and Rodgers, Inside Story ended up being a refreshing outlet for Jones. Filtering out the darker elements from the last few years, Inside Story was straight ahead R&B and pop. Jones wore these sounds incredibly well as heard on the biggest hit from Inside Story, the sassy "I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)."

Nimble and delicate on "Barefoot in Beverly Hills" or throwing a tantrum on "Hollywood Liar," Jones seemed relaxed. The mentioned cuts, along with the smoky "Victor Should Have Been a Jazz Musician," brought Jones back to the expressive peaks of her disco recordings. The commercial fortune of the record was decent, but Jones relocated to Manhattan Records owner Capitol Records three years later for Bulletproof Heart (1989). Not up to her usual standards, the record did have many songs worth approaching again. A pack of producers had their hands in Heart's pot, Jones herself, Chris Stanley, Jonathan Elias, Robert ClivillĂ©s and David Cole. The sounds in '89 had switched toward house and New Jack Swing. Jones acclimatized to it on the slamming "Driving Satisfaction" and club hit "Love on Top of Love."

Jones' cover of "Amado Mio" shone brightest on Heart. Made prominent in the 1949 noir film Gilda, where actress Rita Hayworth mimed to Anita Kert Ellis' voice, the European gem was perfect for Jones. Like many of her French spritzed songs before it, the song opened with a dramatic pose before it spilled into a tropical kamikaze. Listen for the punctuated "Huh!" borrowed from Slave to the Rhythm's "Operattack." The song closed with a giggling Jones asking "Y'all want me to do Sam Cooke now?" Jones segued back into film successfully on the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang in 1992. Its all-star black cast included Halle Berry, Robin Givens, David Alan Grier, Martin Lawrence, the late Eartha Kitt, Lela Rochon, Tisha Campbell, and Chris Rock. In the movie Jones played Helen StrangĂ©, a kooky model not dissimilar from Jones' own exaggerated persona. The union gave Jones a club banger in "7 Day Weekend," written by Jones and Dallas Austin and worked over by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds with L.A. Reid. The song appeared on the hugely successful soundtrack partner to the film.

Despite other movie work and remaining a hot commodity within the model/touring echelon, the remainder of the '90's saw Jones struggling to get her albums released. The two records shelved were Black Marilyn (1994) and Force of Nature (1998). The latter saw a song called "Hurricane (Cradle to the Grave)" become just "Hurricane" and the title cut on her tenth album in 2008. Signing to the Wall of Sound, Jones' Hurricane was a massive success when unleashed. A diverse collection of musicians and producers co-created with Jones on this labor of love: Brian Eno, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Tricky, Ivor Guest.

While "Corporate Cannibal" and "Devil in My Life" confirmed that her mid-Island Records snarl hadn't lost its bite, it was the autobiographical contents of Hurricane that critics and fans hurrah-ed over. Jones' lyrics on her family ancestry and romantic endeavors hit hard on the bass boom of "This Is" or the gospel strain of "Williams' Blood." The stretching of Hurricane found that Jones had only gotten better with age. Embarking on a tour to support Hurricane, Jones was met with sold out venues and piles of rave reviews in 2009. 2011 saw a repackaged Hurricane unfurled with an additional "dub mix" companion to the original disc. The weird science of Grace Jones is her multifaceted appeal. Why it's unmistakable that her steel rending mask of '80 through '85 captivates, Jones' music reveals broader discoveries. Whether imparting the joie de vivre that encapsulated her first three albums or the sensitive, searching modes heard on Inside Story and Hurricane, Jones is a living canvas of art.

Grace @ The Jonathan Ross Show Performing "Love You to Life," Circa 2009

That voice, almost more than any other in the last three decades, set flame to the idea of conventional singing. Jones' approach to music is invested and real, sometimes moreso than a "true" singer. Enslaved to the rhythm of transforming music into something different, new, and (at times) frightening, Grace Jones is a heart quickening experience no music listener should be without. Ever.-QH

[Editor's Note: As of this writing, eight of Jones' ten albums are in print, with Warm Leatherette and Living My Life currently out of circulation. The used costs are fair however, and it's sure that these won't be out of print long, as her second and third albums (Fame and Muse) were just reissued via Gold Legion. Ironically, there is not an official Grace Jones website, but a (possibly) officially endorsed Grace Jones Facebook page. A very special thanks to Andrew Bird for the lovely & stunning artwork created just for this piece.-QH]


Moanerplicity said...

So glad you shared your god-given talents as a music writer & deemed to throw some spotlight on Grace Jones.

I own much of her earlier work, from Portfolio, Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, etc. IMHO, there hasn't been a more unique presence or a more addictive series of hardcore dance grooves found anywhere that even come close to the work of Gracie Mae (as I calls her). Methinks Sly & Robbie laced her best, from a production end.

The only time(s) she ever 'scared' me was for a few moments during Conan The Barbarian, & maybe a scene or two in Boomerang. LOL.

I didn't know until recently that she had an operatic range, or a classical bg. Her singing always seemed rather laidback, as if she were some coolly exotic model-chick only slumming for a minor hit. But there are moments during her stronger stuff, like "La Vie En Rose" where she shows such promise & such flexible vocal abilities that can actually surprise those listeners who may have dismissd her as just another also-ran Disco Queen.

Digs me some Gracie Mae. I've a lot of hot memories invested in her music.


QH said...

Glad you shared Linn. She really is interesting as an artist for sure.-QH

RellfromLastFM said...

As usual, I read your article with great attention and interest. Yet - as frenchman - I must correct you on one point : "Autumn leaves" is not an Edith Piaf song. The song was written for Cora Vaucaire, which was a terribly overlooked french diva. Edith Piaf sang it way after her and Yves Montand.

QH said...

@ Rell: Thanks for the notice! I knew the song wasn't specifically just done by Piaf. I just knew she was one of the most (known) singers of it & figured it was the best way to go for the reference.

However, you brought to my attention that it could offend to not mention the originator & I always try to do that. I reworked the line. Glad you enjoyed the piece. :)-QH

Jennifer said...

Wonderful write-up of Miss Grace Jones' often forgotten about discography! I hold 'Slave To The Rhythm' near and dear to my heart...what a groundbreaking piece of work from Trevor Horn.

One of my personal favorites aside from 'Nightclubbing' is 'Inside Story'---loved ever single song especially "Barefoot" and "Chan Hitchhikes". I haven't delved into the disco trilogy as I wasn't that enthused with what I heard, but I love her 80's material. Innovative and very exciting stuff it was/is.