Thursday, May 17, 2012

Princess of Darkness

Her father went from rural Tupelo, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, to find his fortune, and then, with the exception of a brief stint soldiering for Uncle Sam in Germany, appeared to spend the rest of his career shuttling between Graceland and Las Vegas.

Lisa Marie Presley has taken a more leisurely route, helped not inconsiderably by inheriting papa's estate at the age of 25. But blessed - or cursed - with being the King of Rock and Roll's only offspring and sole heir, La Presley has, like most offspring of the incalculably famous, endured the spotlight all of her life - and long before she sought fame herself with her debut album.

That record, To Whom It May Concern, released in 2003, earned surprising plaudits - surprising in that being Elvis Presley's daughter was too much of an unfairly loaded dice for Presley herself, given that she will always be compared with the incomparable.

Its follow-up, Now What, faired less favourably, largely due to its choice of AOR durge, such as a dreadful cover of Don Henley's Dirty Laundry. Mind you, coming on the back of her failed third marriage (to Nicolas Cage), Presley was probably looking to blow off some steam.

Seven years later, the 44-year-old has returned with Storm & Grace, an album that draws strength from a combination of the go-to American roots producer du jour, T-Bone Burnett, and - incongruously - the unlikely influence of the cities of Sheffield, Glasgow and the London suburb of Wimbledon. Yes, let me read that back to you again - producer T-Bone Burnett, Sheffield, Glasgow and Wimbledon.

Burnett's knack of bringing new life to venerable artists like Tony Bennett and the late Roy Orbison, and raising the profile of bluegrass with his soundtrack work on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss blockbuster Raising Sand, is clearly a perfect fit for Lisa Marie Presley, drawing together different strands of modern music's DNA, one way or another.

What is less obvious, but a masterstroke in my opinion, is Presley's choice of working with Britain's Richard Hawley (whose incredible new album Standing At The Sky's Edge came out last week - and reviewed here), along with south London's very own Ed Harcourt and Fran Healy from Travis. Like her father, Presley has canny management (Simon Fuller - svengali to the Beckhams, all the Spices and pop star-turned-pop stars' writer, Cathy Dennis), which enables you to stand back and admire Storm & Grace as a brilliantly crafted package - star, star producer, star writers.

Thankfully, the star ingredients have been turned into something edible (a relief as too often dream team combinations are considerably less the sum of their parts). Over Me - one of the tracks co-written by Presley and Harcourt - sets a tone of grown-up 'non-country' country-folk, lots of tremolo-shimmering guitar, a sound that continues onto You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which finds Presley drawling, confrontationally, lines like "You can think that I'm evil and I'm off the rails - you ain't seen nothing yet, thatI'm a bit transgressive and suppressive as well." Alrighty then.

Without even needing to look up the sleeve notes, Weary is quintessential Richard Hawley. With Presley crooning, kd lang-style, a torch song of failed love ("I would have been your Priestess but I tripped on my robe"), echoey guitars shimmer in the background. Likewise on How Do I Fly This Plane?, the title track itself and the penultimate number, I Was Wrong. Achingly beautiful songs which, simply, underline why Hawley is one of the best British songwriters to emerge in the last couple of decades. The partnership between Presley and Hawley dates back to 2009, when they first performed Weary on stage together. Hawley then set out to help relaunch her career, and of the tracks on Storm & Grace, his are probably the best. Perhaps a dedicated album from the pair wouldn't be out of the question?

And, maybe, T-Bone Burnett would produce it. After recent production stints on albums like the Crazy Heart soundtrack, John Mellencamp's last three records, Elvis Costello's National Ransom and the underrated Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration, The Union, it can be a challenge to work out what it is Burnett brings to his projects. All are good, don't get me wrong, but it's with this album by Lisa Marie Presley that I've finally recognized that Burnett has a unique way of making American roots music moody. So Long is the perfect example - a darkly jaunty song, and another about farewells, it could so easily have been another Achy Breaky Heart in others' hands. Under Burnett, it lacks gloss - and that's just perfect.

As its principle lyricist, Presley treads the time-honoured tradition of using the album as part-confessional, part-exorcism for old ghosts. The death of second husband Michael Jackson can't be ruled out as one influence, but it seems that, now happily married for a fourth time with children running around, the contemplation Storm & Grace provides is to expunge all the other detritus life gathers as you reach your forties - and in Presley's case, a famous childhood included.

"In the past, I was terrified," she recently told an American newspaper. "I’d be nervous and worried about comparisons [to Elvis]”. On this record, I was starting from zero. But I soon realized I was going to be OK. I found a proper bed for my voice and songwriting to lie in."

That voice is a relatively low register, well suited to the sombre quality of this album. There are, however, tracks like Sticks And Stones that might have been better suited to a Jewel or Sheryl Crow (and, unfortunately, makes her sound a little too much Cher...). Then there are songs like Un-break which stray too far from the dark folk elsewhere, offering instead flat pop-rock with a few bits of Beatley psychedelia going on. So Long, goes for a poppier, jangly groove, but lacks the shadow that the rest of the album - and especially the Hawley and Harcourt co-composed tracks reside in to their credit.

Surprisingly, however, Lisa Marie - Rock'n'Roll's first and only princess (and certainly the only rock child I know of with a jet named after her) - spends half the year living in Britain - rural Kent, the garden of England, to be precise, which might explain her exposure to the UK's songwriting talent.

That she spends the other half of the year divided between Los Angeles and Memphis might explain the cultural split that defines the patchwork that exists on Storm & Grace.

That's not flag-waving sentiment - it's just that the rootsier end of the American songbook represented on this album seems to emanate, strangely, from Sheffield's Hawley and London's Harcourt, whose writing crops up twice more Soften The Blows, a more traditional, lap steel-infused country ballad, and the shuffle Storm Of Nails.

And what of Fran Healy? The Berlin-based Glaswegian provides the music to one track, Heartless. Given that Healy has been acclaimed for opening the doors, musically, to Coldplay and Keane, amongst other melodic "bed wetters" (to quote Alan McGhee...), his contribution here doesn't tug the emotions as much as the album's more haunting tracks do. And in that category, you must include the closing song Just A Dream, written entirely by Lisa Marie herself.

On the tailfins of both private jets now permanently parked at Graceland in Memphis - the Corvair 880 named Lisa Marie and the smaller Jetstar used by Elvis - is the lighting flash logo and initials TCB: Taking Care of Business. This became Presley's signature, but it would appear that his daughter has decided to do the same with Storm & Grace. After one good and one take-it-or-leave-it AOR effort, her third visit to the recording studio has been worth it.

It's not perfect, but in skipping the two or three tracks out of eleven that don't work, you're still left with an album well worthy of the numerous talents behind it.

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