Tuesday 26 September 2017

Rock: Did you think you'd see the day?

Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong

Contrasting styles: Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones
Contrasting styles: Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones
Ed Power

Ed Power

She's a sloe-eyed chanteuse with a voice like gently dripping molasses; he's a lip-curled punk whose last public appearance was a profanity-slathered meltdown at a teen pop concert. Put them together and you get . . . well, we're about to find out.

In what rates as one of rock's more far-fetched hook-ups, jazz-soul singer Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong of ageing emo crew Green Day have recorded a suite of duets wherein they wrap their collective tonsils around the great American songbook.

Inspired by an iconic covers LP made by the Everly Brothers in the 1950s, Foreverly (baddum-tish) sees the pair offering heartfelt homage to such dusky anthems as 'Long Time Gone' and 'Roving Gambler'. Think of it as their Rattle and Hum, with less cowboy hats and braying histrionics.

Surprisingly, Armstrong is the project's driving force. He has been out of the spotlight since his high-profile coming apart at the 2012 iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas, at which he responded to attempts to curtail Green Day's set by thrashing his guitar and bawling expletives ("I'm not f***ing Justin Bieber," he pointed out, unnecessarily). Carted off to rehab afterwards, it's fair to say nobody expected that he would return in the guise of an old school crooner.

The touchstone for bizarro musical get-togethers is unquestionably the 1977 union of David Bowie and Bing Crosby. At the apex of his Thin White Duke phase, Bowie stood unchallenged as the hippest rock star on the planet. Seventy-four-year- old Crosby, meanwhile, had passed into his dotage and, before he and Bowie met, admitted to friends he'd never heard of the Englishman (Bowie was initially dead set against the song and required cajoling by his manager).

Nearly 40 years on, it is hard to say whether 'Drummer Boy' qualifies as charming oddity or fascinating disaster. Perhaps it is both at once. It certainly presented a powerful study in contrasts, Bowie's chilly affect and Crosby's chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire intonations coiling about one another like oil separating from water. Not every collaboration is as successful. U2 obsessives aside, who now fondly remembers Bono and Frank Sinatra's 1993 tilt at 'I've Got You Under My Skin'?

When last did anyone slap on the Elton John-Eminem dirge 'Stan'? In the stampede to laud Lou Reed's legacy after his death, no one could bear to bring up his most recent long-player, a train-wreck co-write with Metallica entitled Lulu and described by one reviewer as "exhaustingly tedious" (one of the kinder assessments).

Jones's motivations for making Foreverly seem straightforward. She has, by every appearance, grown increasingly weary of her easy-listening image. Her 2009 album The Fall was full of painful break-up laments, 2012's Little Broken Hearts an engaging mind-meld with studio guru Danger Mouse (currently at work with U2 on their next LP). The lady is ready to switch things up.

For Armstrong, the reasons are less obvious. It is possible he is trying to repair the damage caused by iHeart-gate. After three decades in the same group, perhaps he simply craves a change. Or maybe he subscribes to the theory that, to keep your art fresh, you owe it to yourself to venture outside your comfort zone.

Addressing the subject of implausible partnerships, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (and producer of the new Arcade Fire LP) has said that occasionally a musician needs to do something silly and exciting. He offered the comments in an interview with the Irish Independent, discussing an ideas-generating session he conducted with Britney Spears.

"I was curious about it because I don't like to write people off," he told me. "You never know how somebody is going to be. You might play them [cult acts] Suicide or ESG and maybe they'll freak out. I don't like to judge people in advance. It was a potentially interesting thing to deal with."

Out of rehab and eager to start the next chapter of his career, Billie Joe would no doubt agree with every word.

Foreverly is released next Friday

Irish Independent

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