Recordings | March 26, 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, March 26, 2015.

Jobriath A.D.
Factory 25 | 4stars

Jobriath’s list of firsts is inspirational and heartbreaking – he was the first openly gay rocker ever signed to a major label, back in 1973. And 10 years later, he was the first rock star to die of AIDS complications, alone and forgotten. With heavy-hitting celebrity fans like Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey and Def Leppard, though, the controversial, maddening, pioneering artist’s legacy simply couldn’t remain lost to cruel history.

At the height of the glam era, Jobriath and his powerful manager, Jerry Brandt, took dead aim at David Bowie’s cagey, contradictory statements about his sexuality. Bowie’s gay drag came on and off more often than a prom queen’s promise ring, but Jobriath dared to declare himself “rock’s true fairy,” and Brandt’s bombastic hype machine practically anointed Jobriath as the second coming. The resulting backlash sunk his critically lauded debut album, and drove Jobriath from the business.

His saga is chronicled in director Kiernan Turner’s documentary Jobriath A.D., which is out now on DVD with a new album of never-before released material from Jobriath’s audacious, provocative (and ultimately cancelled) stage musical, Popstar. With orchestration from the London Symphony, slated for the Paris Opera House, Popstar sounds like it would’ve been a Gaga-esque dream; Jobriath announced he’d appear dressed as “King Kong being projected upwards on a mini Empire State Building. This will turn into a giant spurting penis and I will have transformed into Marlene Dietrich.” Alas, that’s a spectacle we’ll never see, but the 14 tracks here help show what might have been. Popstar isn’t the perfect introduction to Jobriath – pick up the Lonely Planet Boy compilation for that one – but along with Turner’s loving documentary, it’s a marvelous addition to his legacy.

marinadiamondsMarina and the Diamonds
Neon Gold/Atlantic | 3halfstars

Marina Diamonds’ exciting debut, 2010’s The Family Jewels, was a true gem, loaded with thoughtful, complex tunes and tasty New Wave hooks. “I Am Not A Robot” is but one of its treasures. The follow-up, 2012’s Electra Heart, was a blatant run at pop stardom, with mixed results; its overblown narrative about American celebrity doesn’t quite land, and the record company meddling feels blatant. Thankfully, she’s finally thrown off the artifice and embraced the wonderfully weird indie-pop promise of her debut.

Recorded with a live band for the first time (“Marina and the Diamonds” is not a band name; you, dear listener, are one of her “Diamonds”), Froot opens with intimate “Happy.” Marina’s voice sounds pure, unadorned by pop trickery. It’s a heartbreaker, a cry for hope in the darkness, and it’s one of her most powerful songs.

The title track brings back the electropop with some Tori Amos-worthy vocal runs and some hilarious Americanisms like “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” Do they have rodeo in Wales? That’s a deeper question than we can answer here. The fantastic “I’m A Ruin” combines the electro sound of her pop hits with the raw, stripped-down power of her voice, while “Blue” is all pulsing synth and layered Marina vox. It should have a place on your local hit radio station, if there’s any justice. Toucan Sam title aside, Froot is a basket of musical joy.

Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox
Selfies on Kodachrome | 4stars

scottbradleeThe concept of rendering current hits in an anachronistic style goes back at least as far as Bill Murray’s lounge singer in “Saturday Night Live” circa 1975, and usually isn’t half that good. But what Scott Bradlee and his revolving cast of musical geniuses create is something far more special and valuable than your neighborhood Richard Cheese wannabe. On their latest album, Selfies on Kodachrome, Bradlee & PMJ bring past eras to life again –and uncover the beauty that often lies hidden in modern pop.

In her own hands, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” is catchy but callow (and Lorde probably wants the melody back); in PMJ’s hands, “Blank Space” becomes a vampy cabaret torch song, with a sexy vocal from Ariana Savalas that puts Taylor out of business. Likewise, Whitney Houston’s hoary chestnut “The Greatest Love Of All” comes to life again as a swinging ‘30s-‘40s delight. Even Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” gets the jazz-age treatment, with a finger, snapping arrangement and ragtime piano brilliance from Bradlee, and Katy Perry’s “Roar” goes gloriously Motown.

Sure, it gets silly after a while – “Stacy’s Mom” in particular seems a bridge too far – but for every one of those, there are three gorgeous, mind-bending treats, like their screamingly funny twist on Tove Lo’s “Habits,” or Shoshana Bean’s smouldering, shoo-bop cover of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” This is no novelty album, though. Listening to Selfies on Kodachrome, you’ll forget the famous hits and lose yourself in top-notch arrangements and amazing vocals that easily outpace the originals. Bradlee, who created some of the time-travel covers used in Bioshock Infinite, deserves every one of his millions of YouTube plays, and Selfies on Kodachrome is as fun as music gets.