For many people, the high-water mark of popular music came with the emergence of the Great American Popular Song. As realized by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and others, this form matched the depth and power of art song with the immediacy of a pop hit. These songs were smart, literate and sophisticated, yet they never came off as snobbish or stuffy and, in the hands of a gifted interpreter -- particularly a Frank Sinatra or an Ella Fitzgerald -- seemed sublimely hip.
Unfortunately, the reign of the G.A.P.S. ended with the rise of rock and roll. Suddenly, it wasn't the song that mattered so much as the single. And because listeners were less concerned with elegant writing than with a good beat or impassioned voice, songwriters took a back seat to singers.
Oh, there were exceptions, of course. From Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley, the rock era has generated gifted songwriters -- artists whose work stands up regardless of who happens to be singing it.
But is it art?
Or, put more specifically, can rock and roll songwriting stand up to the model of the European art song? That's the question Ute Lemper asks with her album "Punishing Kiss" (Decca 289 464 473, arriving in stores today). And the answer, while hardly an unqualified yes, is definitely in the affirmative.
This isn't an attempt to dress rock and roll in classical clothing, as in "The London Symphony Orchestra Plays Black Sabbath." Lemper's background clearly is on the classical side -- she is perhaps the foremost interpreter of Kurt Weill alive today, and is equally versed in French chanson and Berlin cabaret songs. But she treats this material as pop music, relying as much on electric guitars and drums as on strings and piano.
But she's not offering a collection of frat-party favorites, either. Most of the album's material is drawn from the cerebral side of rock, and includes such writers as Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Nor are all of the selections by rockers -- the album includes a song each from Weill and Philip Glass. In other words, it's not the sort of album likely to be marked "PLAY LOUD."
Yet even though Lemper doesn't play up the most viscerally physical elements of rock and roll, she nonetheless taps into its emotional immediacy. Indeed, that seems to be where she sees the most obvious connection between these arty rockers and actual art song -- that they use words and music to convey a complex and poetic emotional reality.
That's certainly the case with Costello's "Passionate Fight" and "Punishing Kiss," songs that require careful attention to the text as well as a consummate control of the melody. Lemper has no trouble with either element, and dispatches the title tune with such grace and passion that some listeners will find themselves wishing she'd do a whole album of Costello songs.
Waits' works don't stand up quite so well. Although the mournful waltz of "The Part You Threw Away" brings out the same strengths that make Lemper such a convincing exponent of Berlin cabaret songs, in the liquor-soaked "Purple Avenue" she slips into imitative homage, singing less like an interpreter than a fan.
There are delightful discoveries here. The most impressive is singer/songwriter Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. Not only did Hannon pen one of the album's most impressive songs, "The Split," but he also sings two duets with Lemper, including a raucous, rocked-up arrangement of Weill's "Tango Ballad." Listening to the sparks these two throw will leave most listeners praying that Lemper rewards us with another "Kiss" soon.
Punishing Kiss (Decca 289 464 473)
Sun score: ***1/2