By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Berlin in the '20s: no other phrase conjures up quite so complete a picture of decadence and doom. Denizens of the Weimar Republic had the hedonist's perfect excuse, a traumatic past and a future that hinted at even worse, and artists from George Grosz to Lou Reed have been energized by that period.
Now it's Marianne Faithfull's turn. It's hard to imagine a more perfect match. Her voice--ragged about the edges, grainy with sad experience and wisdom--is certainly suited to this collection of cabaret-style readings that recall the Weimar Republic.
The culmination of a long-standing obsession with the songs of Kurt Weill, the album leans heavily on Weill's collaboration with Bertolt Brecht (particularly The Threepenny Opera) but also includes other songs whose mood and mode fit that oeuvre. Faithfull's voice--heavy with resilient melancholy--masters them all, from the disillusioned dreamer of "Want to Buy Some Illusions" to the roadworn but incurable romantic who sings "Falling In Love Again" (both songs that were first performed by that most enduring of Weimar icons, Marlene Dietrich). Although she's full of the fatigue that can come from growing older and wiser, Faithfull never abandons pride: Listen to the rage that lies just beneath her "Pirate Jenny," the prostitute-barmaid's revenge fantasy from Threepenny.
Recorded live in Paris, 20th Century Blues features just Faithfull's voice, the piano of Paul Trueblood, and an occasional acoustic bass. People who--through countless amateur dance recitals and hotel bars--have had their appreciation of the sound of a single piano beaten out of them may well find it restored by Trueblood's skill and feeling at the keyboard. He expertly backs up both singer and song, whether quietly playing single note runs or throwing up great crashing chords; the music-hall grandeur he conjures up for the Noel Coward-penned title track is inspired.
The operatic Weill-Brecht songs are where Faithfull shines most brightly, whether she's rescuing "Alabama Song" from Jim Morrison's strut and returning it to the "sharks and harpies" of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or interpreting Irish playwright Frank McGuiness' new translation of the four Threepenny songs: "Pirate Jenny," "Salomon Song," "Mack the Knife," and "Street Singer's Farewell," an appropriate disc-closing song. No time and place resonates for the fin de siecle West quite like Germany in the 1920s, and it's brilliantly appropriate that Marianne Faithfull--someone who has no doubt seen it all--returns to sing it all.