Monday, 5 May 2014

Review: 'Nightclubbing' (2014 reissue) by Grace Jones

In 1981, Grace Jones released her fifth studio album Nightclubbing. Along with its predecessor, Warm Leatherette (1980), it represented a new musical direction for Jones: after her first three albums - the disco trilogy of Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) and Muse (1979) - she reinvented herself as a new wave icon, known for her striking androgynous image and signature flattop hairstyle. The visual transformation was done with her then-boyfriend Jean-Paul Goude who started directing her music videos and designing the artwork for her albums. Music-wise, she teamed up with Sly & Robbie to create music that could be described as reggae-influenced new wave. In a sense, the reinvention can be seen as a return to her Jamaican roots after the disco years that represented the 'New York' side of her life.

Nightclubbing is the second album of her 'Compass Point trilogy', recorded at the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. Similarly to Warm Leatherette, the album consisted of various cover versions with reggae-influenced arrangements. However, there's more original material on Nightclubbing: three songs out of nine are co-written by Jones ("Pull Up To The Bumper", "Art Groupie", "Feel Up"), one by Marianne Faithfull and Grace Jones collaborator Barry Reynolds ("I've Done It Again"), and while the Sting-penned "Demolition Man" was later cover by his own band The Police, it premiered as a Grace Jones song on this record. Innovative and fresh-sounding, the LP went on to become perhaps the most iconic Grace Jones record to date, achieving a cult status in pop music, not least for its visual aspects.

The Jamaican-esque rhythm section is the driving force in the songs and owes a lot to the bouncy arrangements of Sly & Robbie. Even now, more than three decades after its initial release, the songs still sound surprisingly fresh and timeless. Indeed, out of her '70s/'80s albums, Nightclubbing has aged the best. Jones's vocals are an intriguing mixture of spoken word and melodic singing, menace and tongue-in-cheek, and it's obvious that the album wouldn't be nearly as impressive if sung by someone else - so strong is her presence.

The album opens up with "Walking In The Rain", one of the more serious-sounding songs here and features Jones reciting the lyrics in her trademark spoken word vocals (with the line "Feeling like a woman / Looking like a man" serving as a fitting epitome of Jones's public image), and closes with the surprisingly tender ballad "I've Done It Again", which demonstrates that she can be much more than just a controversial dominatrix, showcasing a softer side of her. Then, halfway through the album, there's "I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)", one of the most unlikely numbers on the record: it's a reinterpretation of the 1974 tango composition "Libertango" by Argentine artist Ástor Piazzolla, set to a reggae backdrop. It also features bilingual lyrics in English and French, and once again a mixture of singing and spoken word. Quite the assortment of elements but it plays out brilliantly. The single was accompanied by a bizarre music video (as you'd expect), directed by Goude.

Don't be fooled, though - most of the material is very playful. On "Use Me" (originally by soul singer Bill Withers) she reverses the gender roles of the song and when she sings "Sometimes it's true / You really do abuse me" it makes you wonder what kind of a man it takes to actually dominate Grace Jones. The choir's dramatic backing vocals add a lovely touch of theatricality to this particular rendition. On the other hand, on the lead single "Demolition Man" she declares to be a force to be reckoned with: "You come to me like a moth to the flame / It's love you need but I don't play that game / You kept on coming, you should've ran / I'm nobody's friend, I'm a demolition man", further toying with her androgynous persona with the masculinity of the song title. "Don't mess around with the demolition man" she sings, and you'd better believe her. Musically the rock-influenced song is the most uptempo track on the record and it's one of the highlights of Nightclubbing, perfectly depicting Jones's wackier side.

The tropical "Feel Up" is like a soft breeze of Caribbean air, while on "Art Groupie" she urges people to focus on her image, the idea of her, as opposed to her personal life: "Don't ask me any questions, my personal life is a bore" before instructing: "Love me in a picture, kiss me in a cast / Touch me in a sculpture, whisper in my mask". Despite the opening statement "I'll never write my memoirs, there's nothing in my book" she has since come to other thoughts, and now she's actually working on one - hopefully there is something in her book after all.

The title track and David Bowie/Iggy Pop cover "Nightclubbing" is a laid-back rendition of the iconic tune, doing justice to the original but giving it a distinctive Grace Jones sound. Jones and Pop even duetted the song a couple of years ago, performing the song live in Jones's version (and let's face it - she totally owns it). However, while all the covers on the LP are of executed flawlessly, the true standout moment is an original number, the highly raunchy, incredibly infectious "Pull Up To The Bumper", which has lost none of its appeal during the past 33 years. The saucy dance floor anthem refers to sexual acts with car-related terminology so no, she's not actually inviting someone to rear-end her in the traffic. Somewhere else, perhaps.

What a catchy, summery tune, right? 

The 2-CD deluxe edition features a bunch of remixes and single versions of the songs, although there's a disappointingly big emphasis on different versions of "Pull Up To The Bumper" - no matter how excellent the song is - with them taking five slots out of 13 bonus tracks which is a bit too much. Sure, the song was the biggest hit to come from this album and soon became one of Jones's signature tunes, but still. Other than that, there's some interesting gems in there, such as a Spanish version of "I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)" and an extended version of "Feel Up" which features some additional lines as well. Most interestingly, there are two previously unreleased songs from the Nightclubbing recording sessions, a song called "If You Wanna Be My Lover" and a Gary Numan/Tubeway Army cover "Me! I Disconnect From You". I have no clue why they weren't originally included on the album as it is only nine tracks long, clocking at less than 40 minutes. I mean, these are marvellous! (Even outshining some of the album tracks.) Well, at least we've got them now.

So, the bonus disc is a great addition for any Grace Jones fans out there but most importantly, the reissue shows what a timeless album Nightclubbing is - it's stood the test of time amazingly, sounding just about as fresh as ever. It surely hasn't achieved its cult status for no reason! And now that the summer is drawing nearer day by day, it'll make a proper summer album as well, whether you're going nightclubbing or not.

4½ / 5

Try at least: "Pull Up To The Bumper", "Demolition Man", "Use Me" (but do check out the two 'new' tracks "If You Wanna Be My Lover" and "Me! I Disconnect From You", too)

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