This is the perfect era for the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The air is filled with the sweet perfume of patriotism and optimism, as appealing as a Weill melody. Yet one doesn't have to look hard to find the cynicism also in Brecht's lyrics. Their songs resonate well with our own ironic time, which may explain the renaissance.
This revival has now yielded "Lost in the Stars" (A&M SP 9-5104), a collection of 16 Weill compositions (including nine with Brecht lyrics) recorded by pop and jazz figures ranging from Sting and Lou Reed to Carla Bley and Charlie Haden. The lasting influence of these two Germans from the 1920s can further be seen in three of the English language's best songwriters over the past 10 years: Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Intentionally or not, these three have adopted the Brecht and Weill modus operandi: well-crafted pop melodies that draw the listener into a disturbingly unsentimental view of society's ironies.
Disappointingly, Waits is the only one of these three to contribute to "Lost in the Stars." He sings "What Keeps Mankind Alive" from "The Threepenny Opera" in his characteristic rasp. His current band sets up an oddly appealing parade march with accordion and banjo; Waits growls maliciously at those well-fed moralizers who declaim while the masses commit whatever sins are necessary to win their daily bread.
Also from "The Threepenny Opera" is the best known Brecht and Weill collaboration, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." Sting sings this tale of a well-dressed murderer with a properly eerie detachment. Dominick Muldowney's arrangement, with help from Branford Marsalis, gives Weill's famous melodic figure a brass parade band punch.
The other "Threepenny" songs are "The Cannon Song" and a medley of "Call From the Grave" and "MacHeath Begs All Men for Forgiveness." The Fowler Brothers, a progressive jazz band, give the first sing-along tune a brassy flair, and Stanard Ridgway (formerly of Wall of Voodoo) belts out Brecht's mock military anthem with a suitably vicious glee. By contrast -- and for no apparent reason -- Todd Rundgren and Gary Windo update the medley into a sleek synth-rock dance number.
From "Mahagonny" come "Alabama Song" and "Heavenly Salvation." The well-known first song is given a rousing choral treatment featuring the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler, Ellen Shipley and jazzman Bob Dorough, over the musical factory sounds of Ralph Shuckett's arrangement. The second song is one of the album's highlights: New Orleans soul legend Aaron Neville and Johnny Adams deepened the irony of Brecht's critique of religion by turning Weill's hymn into glorious gospel music.
Another highlight is Marianne Faithfull's version of "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife." Her bleached-out voice, often a liability, becomes an asset here: She sings in a chilling deadpan of a wife receiving pillage from all over Europe. Jim Cuomo's lyrical woodwind phrases reinforce the seductiveness of Weill's melancholy tune.
The album also gives a sampling of Weill's music after he left Brecht. The best are the two jazz instrumentals. Pianist Sharon Freeman creates a lush harmonic arrangement of "Speak Low" with a string quartet and woodwinds, against which Charlie Haden plays an improvised bass solo of striking originality and emotion. Even better is Carla Bley's Ellingtonesque arrangement of "Lost in the Stars," setting up Phil Woods' superb alto sax solo, which speaks as compellingly as any of the vocals. Both performances illustrate the rich harmonic ideas behind Weill's beguiling tunes.
"Lost in the Stars" is the third album that Hal Willner has produced of various artists playing one composer's music. The first two (devoted to Nino Rota and Thelonious Monk) were largely instrumental and thus seemed more of a piece. On the new album, the differences between vocal styles are more pronounced, and it could be quite jarring to go from Tom Waits to Aaron Neville within a few songs.
Tom Waits' new album, "Rain Dogs" (Island, 7 90299-1), consolidates the new direction he took on 1983's "Swordfishtrombones." Now producing himself, Waits has moved away from sentimental story-songs about society's losers to brittle, detached commentaries on the pattern that produced such losers. Brecht would approve of this transition, even if Waits' old fans and record company may not.
Musically, Waits has shifted from tinkling pianos and drum brushes to a more jagged, rumbling sound that emphasizes tribal percussion and hard-edged electric guitar (sharply played by Keith Richards, Lou Reed's Robert Quine and newcomer Marc Ribot). Typical of Waits' new songs is "Cemetery Polka," which describes six different uncles sinking into old age without grace or hope. Not the bleating of Bob Funk's trombone nor the fractured rhythm of Stephen Hodges' parade drum nor the iciness of Waits' vocals allow any poignancy to distract us from the harshness of the scenes he's describing.
In other songs, he describes dissolute parents, hardened sailors, the homeless in the rain and a petty thief on the run. Instead of romanticizing society's fringe figures as he once did, Waits focuses on the irony of hipsters who have completely missed the joke of their own lives.
Like the 60-minute "Lost in the Stars," the 55-minute "Rain Dogs" is a double-album set squeezed onto a single disc: Waits gives us 17 different songs plus two instrumentals. All of them are at least interesting; a handful are among his best songs. On the best numbers ("Time," "Blind Love" and "Downtown Train"), Waits manages to balance his harsh Brechtian lyrics with intoxicating Weillian music.