Dusted Reviews

Cristina - Doll in the Box / Sleep It Off

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Cristina

Album: Doll in the Box / Sleep It Off

Label: Ze

Review date: Jan. 27, 2005

Some day the book of ZE Records will be written - (has it already been written? Did I miss it? Is it possible for a story this rich to have gone largely undocumented for so long?) - and the label’s importance as the artistic repository and aesthetic nexus of early-mid-’80s punk/funk/disco/etc., will stand tall and (almost) alone amidst the detritus of the era. The great thing about ZE Records was that it was the least partisan of the labels from the time: Arthur Russell brought you minimalism, disco, and effete astral folk, but with ZE you could lean on Tommy Browder a.k.a. August Darnell a.k.a. Kid Creole, whose productions cubed the pleasures of disco, funk, Latino, pop, New Wave, and etc., coated with an approach to vocal and brass arrangement and lyrical humor that was as wrist-flappingly knowing and performative as music hall - pure showmanship style.

Darnell produced Cristina, the first album from Cristina Monet, Harvard graduate, Village Voice critic, and wife of ZE Records head Michael Zilkha. And if the Monet/Zilkha marriage made this first album (compiled, with added tracks from single releases from the era, on Doll in the Box) possible, it’s absolutely not a case of ‘wealth begets indulgence’: Monet’s ironic, disdainful outlook on life and art was entirely preformed, as if it were designed to play the ultimate spike in Darnell’s jubilant productions. Doll in the Box is one of those rare instances where intellect bolsters the content and quality of the music: the ‘Brechtian pastiche’ that Cristina applied to “Disco Clone” is driven home through the hilarity of Kevin Kline’s guest vocal performance (it might have qualified as lascivious on another planet); “Is That All There is?” changes the lyrics to the Lieber and Stoller song and attenuates the internal comedy of the situation, and the cover of “Drive My Car” is voiced by Monet as a Monroe-esque paean to the gender and power relations implicit in society’s relationship with the automobile.

But it’s the Darnell productions that grab me the most: dense with percussion, scored with brash blasts of brass, riotously pan-generic, they’re an oddly perfect backdrop for Cristina’s arch, playful vocals. There’s still disco in there, but its motifs and energy are placed in service to Latin beats, which, as Cristina discussed in a recent interview with Elisabeth Vincentelli, were “preferred to the lugubrious disco rhythm… I wanted to mix them with cinematic imagery to put a bit of histrionic pizzazz in disco, which I found very anodyne.” Perhaps disco was slightly anodyne by 1980, but Cristina’s first album reconnects with another key archetype of disco: physical, propulsive, joyous music as the backdrop to songs that document loss, broken hearts, and social alienation. Borne of exclusion, disco built elegy into its lyrics. Cristina may have replaced the melancholy of “If I Can’t Have You” with irony, but her concerns are often as bleak, and when she tones down the misery, she increases the devilish word-play and humor.

Those elements were amplified on 1984’s Sleep it Off, where Cristina teamed up with Don Was to produce an album whose topical consistency was hinged to music that shifted between modes from song to song. (This is opposed to Cristina, where multiple genres inhabited every song.) Cristina’s increasing confidence is audible in her focused vocal style: the femme fatale squeals and sighs of 1980 have given way to an acerbic, sarcastic delivery. On “The Lie of Love,” Cristina’s demystification of long-term relationships is as potent as the Gang of Four’s romantic alienation effect, but Cristina hinges her lyrics to music that signifies as lugubrious, woozy and tropical. Don Was’ production gilds the record with sharp, plastic edges, splintered and stuttered rhythms making way for string-of-pearl guitars: occasionally - as on the opening “What’s A Girl to do” - Was’ toy-box symphonies and Cristina’s emotionally divested performance recall the Flying Lizards. The three covers placed in the middle of Sleep it Off attest to the record’s diversity, with Van Morrison’s bucolic “Blue Money” turned into jaunty desperation, country tune “She Can’t Say That Anymore” molded into a humid melodrama, and Brecht and Weill’s “Ballad of Immoral Earnings” towering above everything, a duet that’s almost maniacal in its poise and precision.

Sleep it Off is an album that’s simultaneously of its time and somehow far, far out of place: the sound is definitively early-mid 1980s pop, but the musical and lyrical content are so dislocating as to send the record spinning off into its own, utterly unique orbit. If anything, the singles appended to the reissue are even more arresting: the stentorian “Deb Behind Bars” is as sticky and humid as the Associates at their peak. Both Doll in the Box and Sleep it Off are fantastic puzzles: although Sleep it Off is a far more rigorously conceptualized album, there’s a part of me that prefers the giddiness of such Doll in the Box songs as the cover of Michel Polnareff’s “La Poupée qui fait Non,” or “Blame it on Disco.” There’s a warmth and kineticism in these recordings that trounces Sleep it Off’s occasional lapses into rigidity. But both discs are essential: re-articulations of the possibilities inherent in mutant disco and its multiple trajectories.

By Jon Dale

Read More

View all articles by Jon Dale

Find out more about Ze

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.