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Flex: Album review

Sky high

Lene Lovich: Flex (Stiff SEEZ 19)
By Debra Daley

Lene Lovich in the late eighties

Lene Lovich in a wedding dress poses on the album cover for her Great Expectations role, and in this case the expectations are, generally speaking fulfilled. Flex, like Lene’s increasingly elaborate wardrobe, is a work of many layers – only rather less frivolous.

Les Chappell, Roger Bechirian and Alan Winstanley share production credits with Ms. Lovich, and great care has been expended on the strata of effects and devices which animate each song. Unlike Stateless, the elements of each arrangement are very clearly defined and add up to a subtle, supple sum. The more baroque excesses of Lene’s inimitable vocal style are kept in line by the muscular additional voices contributed by Les Chappell and associates, and characteristic of the whole album is a powerful rhythm section which makes for a much meatier sound than that of her first album.

Side one is the more instantly appealing. For a start there’s Birdsong, neatly sidestepping the usual accusations of laughable mannerism by simply serving the function of its subject matter – with a beat. Anyway its roost in the charts needs no defense, so next contestant on the clap-o-meter is What Will I Do Without You (a high scorer) which flows along on an infectious riff towards another possible chart attack , except for the fact that the record-buying public have their suspicions that Lene Lovich represents ‘art’, and a spurious kind of art at that.

Lene LovichAngels, for all its charm, may well all a victim of this misguided belief. The Hell’s Angels aspects has been noted elsewhere, but Angels demonstrates one of the attractive features of Lene’s lyrics, namely the saving grace of irony taking the edge off self-conscious melodrama. And there’s got to be a trace of wit in the use of the vibraphone – so beloved of the fusion-jazz/easy-listening practitioner – to open The Night while Lene sings, in sepulchral tones: ‘Beware of their promise/Believe what I say’. The conclusion of fading sax and cocktail piano would find a kind home on any 3 a.m. radio program, were it not for the crashing percussion.

You Can’t Kill Me is a forceful number in the Valhalla mode. The voice advances to prominence on a white reggae bass line and Lene sounds remorselessly indestructible, supported by a doomy drumbeat and swelling keyboards which rise to a crescendo of basso profundo chanting, not a million kilometers removed from the ‘natives are restless’ piece at the end of I Am The Walrus.

Flip over, and Egghead reveals itself to be the slightest track on the album. Its relentless tick-tock beat is too close to the horrors of alarm-clocks to be endured in comfort. Monkey Talk also favors the staccato attack, but its sharp swirl of keyboards, primate shrieks and frequent changes of tempo are not irritatingly mechanical. It features a rousing chorus of the kind which figures prominently in Wonderful One and Joan.

When Lene is not coming on all darkly threatening or practicing for the alternative La Scala, she sometimes adopts a stirring, robust approach which is just a teensy bit to hearty for my tubercular tastes, and Wonderful One is a case in point: there’s a soaring assertive chorus guarantee to make spineless jerks sit up and take notice. One of the advantages of Flex, however, is that spineless jerks may turn their attention to other attractions, like the compulsive, galloping keyboards that kick off Wonderful One, or the chilling distant background soprano.

Lene LovichJoan favors a jolly brass intro, after which Lene’s stentorian voice marches ever onwards in the cause of Good Advice, exhorting Joan to ‘Look into your life/And use what you may find/The answer lies beyond your eyes/It’s not that far.’ In unkind moments it seems ponderous, but again I can’t argue with certain essential delicacies like keyboard breaks and this smidgen of dub.

Finally, The Freeze. This I love. It’s wonderfully sparse and ethereal with the deathless, anthemic feel of something like Johnny Comes Marching Home. All mists, shadowy figures, molto pathos and wide screen. An icy synthesizer fades up and gives way to bluesy organ. Lene’s voice sounds disconcertingly remote and uncharacteristically restrained as she sings: ‘The icicles are falling in our eyes/As we go · As we go · This is the longest night of all.’ I don’t know whether it’s about a holocaust or a cold night, but it hits the spot.

Stiff can rest assured that Lovich and Chappell, who composed seven of the ten songs here, have written a body of work persuasive enough to get the masses forking out crumpled green ones. Sure, you could take cheap shots at them for being occasionally precious, but plug in the cassette and they still pass the driving test. Flex has the necessary adrenaline level for the 80 mph surge down the motorway, too.