Horses and High Heels
At the age of 64, one-time Mick Jagger muse, former heroin addict and husky-voiced art rock chanteuse Marianne Faithfull has put together a record that vitally showcases her hard won, world weary pathos and showy style. Horses and High Heels is an intriguing collection of carefully selected cover tunes and a few originals that mostly play to Faithfull’s strengths. But in her hands, even the missteps are seldom less than interesting.
The record reunites Faithfull with Strange Weather producer Hal Willner, who also brought the atmospherics to Lucinda Williams’ 2007 disc West, manned the console for Lou Reed on several occasions (Reed turns up on guitar on a couple of tracks here), and supervised the music on Saturday Night Live for many years. Willner does an effective job of setting the mood and surrounding Faithfull’s throaty exhortations with understated soundscapes. Recorded in the French Quarter with a talented group of New Orleans musicians, Horses and High Heels has a certain Crescent City joviality but it is the record’s darkest moments that are its most affecting.
That’s particularly true of opener “The Stations,” originally cut by the Greg Dulli/Mark Lanegan duo project The Gutter Twins. Set against chiming guitars and mournful violin, Faithfull’s smoky croon brings just the right amount of spookiness to lines like “I hear the rapture’s coming / They say he’ll be here soon / Right now there’s demons crawling / All around my room.” It’s easy to see here why folks like P.J. Harvey cite Faithfull as a major influence. The bitterness and regret is palpable on “Why Did We Have to Part?” which Faithfull co-wrote with Laurent Voulzy. “Why couldn’t life just stay the same / It was over and I didn’t know it / Living without you feels so strange,” she sings. Faithfull’s voice brings authority to the poetic verses of “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” penned by John Prine protégé R.B. Morris. Strings and twangy, reverbed guitars color the tune.
Echoes of the past haunt several songs here as well. There’s a Stones-y blues/funk groove to the juke joint piano-flavored “No Reasons,” a tune by British soul man Jackie Lomax. The organ and jangly guitars on “Prussian Love” bring to mind mid-60s Dylan. “Love Song,” a tune by British folkie Lesley Duncan, which Elton John covered more than 40 years ago, is given a slightly creepy Pink Floyd-like treatment. She borrows a sample from Brian Jones’ 1968 Moroccan recordings for “Eternity,” one of two tracks she co-wrote with guitarist Doug Pettibone. Faithfull sounds surprisingly upbeat as she croons “You better jump with joy / shake with fear / this is an everlasting year,” as la-la-la backing vocals follow along behind her.
Faithfull also manages to bring a certain gravitas to a cabaret-style, spoken word take on the Jerry Leiber tune “Past Present and Future,” which was recorded by the Shangri-Las. Her delivery brings weight to what would otherwise be melodramatic and campy. And while Dusty Springfield may have recorded the definitive version of the Goffin/King classic “Goin’ Back,” Faithfull makes it her own here. Backed by stately piano, elegiac horns, and angelic backing vocals, her weathered voice conveys all the yearning, understanding and triumph in the line “But thinking young and growing older is no sin / And I can play the game of life to win.”
The misfires include Faithfull’s version of Joe and Ann’s “Gee Baby,” which takes the blues to New Orleans and invites Dr. John by for some honkytonk piano. While a record like this needs something to lighten the mood and cleanse the musical palette, this is pretty much a throwaway. Faithfull’s stilted delivery sticks out like a sore thumb and derails the bon temps before they can even get rolling. Her take on Allen Toussaint’s “Back in Baby’s Arms” is equally unconvincing and out of place. Despite swelling church choir-style backing vocals to sell it, the tune doesn’t really have enough depth or mystery to it to make it worthy of the Faithfull treatment.
Much better, though a tad underwritten to be worthy of Faithfull’s portentous delivery, is the Celtic-flavored title track, the other Pettibone co-write, on which she looks back on time spent in Dublin and Paris. And Faithfull also gets the spookiness and theatricality right on the set closing ghost story “The Old House,” which was written for her by Irish playwright Frank McGuiness. All in all, Horses and High Heels is a solid collection that successfully showcases one of rock’s most unique voices and intriguing personalities in a variety of musical settings. There is plenty here to like and to inspire the next generation of smoky chanteuses. This, ladies, is how it’s done.