New contenders, veteran contenders, deceased contenders: this week it is the old guard that stand up best. The oddest album comes from a musician-and-lyricist partnership described on the sleeve by Terry Southern as "the original Glimmer Twins." He's referring to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and as he's just spent a lot of time with Jagger and Richards, as they were recording in New York, I suppose this counts as a back-hand compliment to the Stones.
The music of Kurt Weill has long had a fascination for fold and rock artists, simply because it is so emotional, theatrical and accessible to American and British audiences. It has been covered by everyone from Judy Collins (Pirate Jenny) to the Doors (with their distinctive version of Alabama Song), and is very much back in favour at the moment, influencing both Tom Waits and Sting.
Lost In The Stars is a timely "interpretation" produced by Hal Willner, who has persuaded jazz and rock stars to record many of the best-known Weill and Weill-Brecht pieces. The result is an odd mixture, from Sting giving a solid, straightforward treatment of Mac The Knife against an oomph-pah brass backing (with a little synthesizer added), to Lou Reed crooning through September Song with a tastefully muted rock band behind him.
Then there's Tom Waits growling through the vicious realism of What Keeps Mankind Alive, with accordion, banjo and horn backing, almost as if it were one of his own songs, and Charlie Haden inventing a bass solo around Speak Low.
The music is a mixture of German cabaret, ballad and jazz, and Brecht's lyrics tell of the brutalities of war, and low-life miseries. Two of the best, most poignant tracks are just such tragedies, and both are sung by ladies who have been overlooked of late. Marianne Faithfull's version of the Ballad Of The Soldier's Wife (with arrangement and guitar by Chris Spedding) is an effective, dramatic piece, and there's an equally emotional song from Dagmar Krause, who used to partner Anthony More and Peter Blegvad in the quirky Slapp Happy.
Joni Mitchell breaks a three-year silence to prove that she still hasn't been blanded-out by the California sun. The anger in Dog Eat Dog may be that of someone sitting at home in luxury being outraged by what she sees on television, but it's none the less effective for that.
On the best track, Tax Free, she allies herself with the "drag queens and punks" in her attack on that rich and remarkably powerful group, the "immaculately tax-free" American evangelists. She proves she's still a strong lyricist on Ethiopia - thankfully with another paean to Live Aid but a thoughtful piece about "short-term greed" and deforestation (echoing Big Yellow Taxi).
Pete Townshend returns to old haunts in White City, curiously described as "a novel" (though it does contain the appropriate Townshend short story on the back sleeve). An album of songs from his current long video/B-movie, it is rather better than the film, which is a part-impressionistic, part-narrative, part-nostalgic piece that also involves Townshend's Deep End band in concert (at the swimming pool, where else?).
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' debut set was one of the best albums of last year, and they never looked like one-shot wonders until their recent, disappointing Hammersmith show. Their charming, gently rousing and gently mournful single, Lost Weekend, proves they're not finished yet, but that's one of the best tracks on the album.
Finally, a highly recommended, if slightly pricey, Christmas present for soul fans who have worn out their old singles of Mary Wells, the Supremes, and early Stevie Wonder. Motown Hits Of Gold is an eight-album set (well, actually nine, but the final sampler is "free" if you buy the boxed set), that contains 150 hit singles from the label, from My Guy to Rhythm Of The Night. Stevie Wonder's post-'72 hits are mysteriously missing, but for "under £30" this is still a vital collection.
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