Friday, January 30, 2009

Anthony Adverse. The Incredible Anthony Adverse (1988).

Sometimes I second guess my own taste. When my most favorite musical discovery of 2008 was a campy, easy-listening album from the mid 1980's, I fear I am losing my grip. Then, I have to remember, I rarely find myself in consensus with the mainstream over what is commonly being hailed as good, or the greatest, or the best thing ever in music, anyway. I just go my own way, and that often leads me into some strange locales.

The I
ncredible Anthony Adverse was a best-seller for el Records, which makes sense because it's truly an eccentric gem. The cover of the CD boasts, "On screen or off, an original from the outset," a typically oblique declaration from the el Records myth makers. "Original" certainly defines her.

The disc launches with a brief, and gothically gnarly, instrumental for a digital chamber orchestra. The first vocal track is an outlandish recounting of the Garden of Eden story, complete with diminished chords, a Cookie Monster-ish
"voice of God," and a kazoo solo. It's ebullient, ridiculous, and campy, the whole album being a camp masterpiece. El Records specialized in the stylized, the artificial, and the outmoded, combined with a sensibility for the literate, humorous, and ironic. Anthony Adverse was able to fully engage herself in these tunes, and takes them on with utter conviction whether they require a throaty cabaret voice, a mellow jazz voice, or a "mod" pop voice. Her singing is a bit like acting, she comes up with a character for every necessity. It gets you wondering though, what was the motivation behind this strange recording, what were the circumstances, and what is it with all these eccentric songs that mix pop, with jazz and novelties?

The best of the songs have a timeless quality that is difficult to pin down. The "Red Shoes Waltz," "Maria Celesta," and "Grisha's Birthday" all have a vaguely mid
1960's tint. "Now Listen" sounds more antiquated, like a small vocal group from the 1950's. The high point for me, emerging after many, many spins, would have to be "Imperial Violets," an impeccable tune which turns up as #55 on Jonathan Bogart's thoughtful list of 100 best songs of the 80's:

Imperial Violets

The songs on this disc still continue to draw me in. I listen closer and closer each time, attempting to catch all the lyrics, hear how the instruments fit together, and
to decipher the chord changes which are incredibly svelte, sublime and deceptive.

Much credit is due Louis Philippe, who wrote most of the songs on this disc, including all the best ones. He also provided the arrangements and most of the vocal and instrumental background. Let's admit, a fair number of popular songs are just riffs with a vocal layered above, the tunes of which employ a few steps of the blues scale. Louis Philippe wrote these songs the old fashioned way. There are distinct melodies within defined structures, and sophisticated modulations crafted in harmonies that borrow from the jazz and classical idioms.

In the late 1970's, the teenaged Julia Gilbert was a member of a couple of punk bands, Popular Theory, and Five Or Six. Subsequently recruited by Mike Alway as a solo artist for el Records, she was renamed Anthony Adverse, and paired with Louis Philippe for the album The Red Shoes, a tribute to the 1948 Powell/Pressburger film. The original is long out of print, but those tracks are included on this "best of" collection, which appends some of her singles to the Red Shoes song cycle, along with covers of 60's hits by Mary Wells and the Shangri La's.

After The Red Shoes album, Anthony Adverse released Spin, a collaboration with the late composer and songwriter, Daemion Barry, w
hich seems now very dated as a late 80's production, and sadly lacks the eccentricity which make el Records releases so engagingly outre.

Julia Gilbert retired the Anthony Adverse persona before the 90's even began, leaving behind very few images, and apparently no interviews or videos. Today, as Mike Alway himself related to me in an email, Julia writes scripts for the long running TV series in the UK, Eastenders. Over twenty years later, there is a lingering nostalgia over her haunting image. Momus recently posted in his blog about meeting her once, and being fairly starstruck in her presence.

The sound of The Incredible Anthony Adverse has the power to immediately obliterate the everyday world, plunging you into a whimsical and insular daydream of refined and charming kookiness. Once you enter it, it's very difficult to leave.

The Incredible Anthony Adverse on SPOTIFY


Basil said...

Anthony Adverse: I am glad you are reminding the world of her brilliance! The Red Shoes was a corker - lyrical, poignant, vocally soaring, with enough period twang to make it a lasting tribute to 80s eclecticism. I don't know what Lermontoff in the film would have made of it, mind you. It's a measure of AA's & Louis Philippe's sharpness that they were streets ahead of the subsequent Powell & Pressburger revival. Something of a soundtrack to the times for me...

rowneyart said...

Yeah , loved this album but cant seem to remember why, then I listened to again. Out of all the naff bands I heard while at art college at St martins...I liked their quirkiness and gentle pastiche tunes...Okay nothing fantastic, but sweet and the sort of music that would suit a gin and tonic on the bow of some ocean liner about to hit an ice berg . Fond memories of my pointy shoe youth.