Shfl Guide: Marc Almond

Marc Almond, by virtue of his indelible performance on Soft Cell’s iconic cover version of “Tainted Love,” is part of pop music history by default, one of those performances that, as he and everyone else knows, essentially has marked and defined him in the public eye since. But it’s precisely because of that performance that over forty years of live performances and studio efforts have been cast into its shadow, both covering his Soft Cell efforts and his even more extensive studio and collaborative releases. (This isn’t even counting numerous never-formally-recorded/released affairs like the Immaculate Consumptive with Nick Cave, J.G. Thirlwell and Lydia Lunch.) Looking strictly at his solo work, Almond began with Untitled, stepping away from Soft Cell’s sonic structure for a looser underground rock feel, as well as starting a series of albums backed by a loose, evolving collective named and renamed the Mambas, the Willing Sinners and La Magia over the course of the eighties. Combining his ear for classic sixties pop, disco and later dancefloor approaches and cabaret forebears, these albums were further matched by more underground or exploratory collaborations, like his continuing work with Thirlwell in his guise as Foetus as well as regular guest work with Coil among others.

A flurry of mainstream UK pop hits in the late 80s and early 90s were balanced out by two albums celebrating Jacques Brel and various older French chansons and singers, while a touring partnership with pianist Martin Watkins led him to time spent in Russia, where he would eventually live part-time. After he turned away from chasing the pop ring to pursue moodier and more individual approaches with his trip-hop influenced Open All Night, he also created two albums focused on classic 20th century Russian songs and singers, all while excavating various recordings from his extensive archives, participating further in numerous dance and techno one-off collaborations, becoming a key member of Jools Holland’s regular touring act celebrating past decades of pop and rock hits, striking up even more collaborations with classically trained musicians, theatrical performers and playwrights and poets, and even getting back together with Dave Ball at various times to create more Soft Cell work. This still doesn’t quite get to everything Almond has actually done over the years, on top of surviving a motor scooter crash that nearly killed him in the 2000s. As of 2022 Almond’s musical polymath skills continue at full steam, with a new Soft Cell album out, while his last solo album Chaos and a Dancing Star featured both a regular Lana Del Rey songwriting collaborator, Chris Braide, and Jethro Tull mainman Ian Anderson. Somewhere in all this he might actually get some rest. (Well deserved, we’d add.)

Stardom Road cover

Such is Marc Almond’s ability as a great interpreter of any number of musical styles that any time he produces a covers album it’s always worth a listen, and Stardom Road is just that. In this case it was partially prompted by a near-fatal accident impeding his songwriting, but he makes up for it several times over with wonderful versions of standards by Dusty Springfield, Roberta Flack, David Bowie, Bobby Darin — two songs, no less — and, via a cover of “Backstage,” a loving nod to his hit duet partner, the then-recently departed Gene Pitney.

Chaos and a Dancing Star cover

Marc Almond’s resparked full solo career came with the help of highflying musical journeyman Chris Braide, but while The Velvet Trail was serviceable enough, things clicked a little more strongly all around with Chaos And A Dancing Star, a sleekly polished effort from a now comfortable musical veteran. The title track is a spiky bit of polite glam-rock inspiration, while an inspired guest performance from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, giving a turn on flute on “Lord of Misrule,” reconfirms Almond’s long-held but sometimes obscured love of prog rock in turn.

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret cover

If, for whatever reason, Marc Almond and Dave Ball had only ever done an epochal cover of a Gloria Jones hit that matched cool, growling electronic tones to a desperate vocal, then their “Tainted Love” would still be legendary. But then they went ahead and created one of the best debut albums of all time by anyone, a fusion of disco, Suicide, Kraftwerk, cabaret, balladry, everything and the kitchen sink fed through a keyboard and a voice. “Bedsitter” and the epochal “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” are just two more of the highlights from this stellar album.

Open All Night cover

Opting for a creative and aesthetic rethink in the wake of Fantastic Star’s flat landing, as well as putting out his first album ever not co-released by Some Bizzare, Marc Almond took the rise of trip-hop as a creative spark and ran with it on the moody, smoky and absolutely great Open All Night. His voice suiting the vibes that the style suggested to him and his collaborators led to striking songs like the title track, the Brazilian-tinged atmospheres of “Black Kiss” and, in a great collaboration, a duet with Siouxsie Sioux on the appropriately theatrical “Threat of Love.”

Heart On Snow cover

In the 1990s Marc Almond first discovered and then happily cultivated an active and extremely passionate fanbase in Russia, more able to openly show their love after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and one of the eventual results was his musical salute to the country, 2003’s Heart On Snow. Featuring collaborations with a number of artists, including rock legend Boris Grebenshikov and famed near-lifelong exile from the Soviet Union Alla Bayanova, Heart On Snow also served as a vivid, engaging introduction to Anglophone listeners of numerous classic Russian popular songs.

Tenement Symphony cover

Grand to the point of almost being grandiose — then again, what would one expect with an album that featured producer Trevor Horn on it on some cuts — Tenement Symphony is a sometimes strange but often compelling album that has some of Marc Almond’s warmest performances on it. Unsurprisingly his ear for covers takes a pride of place — his dual Jacques Brel/Scott Walker tribute “Jacky” is a romp, while the version of “The Days of Pearly Spencer” became a solid UK hit — but originals like “Champagne” and “Beautiful Brutal Thing” show his own skill at work.

Jacques cover

Having spent some years openly singing the praises of Jacques Brel, as well as covering his songs both in studio and live, Marc Almond went ahead for a full cover album tribute to the Belgian singer and songwriter, aiming to update Brel’s Anglophonic appreciation in the 1960s for a new generation. A passion project in the best sense, often involving new translations into English specifically for the release, Jacques had Almond delivering Brel classics like “My Death,” “Never to be Next” and, in a new rerecording of a favorite, “If You Go Away.”

Absinthe - The French Album cover

A sequel of sorts to Jacques, Absinthe found Marc Almond offering up covers, in some cases of songs never translated into English before, of various notable French standards and curiosities from the same general era of Jacques Brel’s success in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the earlier album the tribute is definitely sonic in part, but ultimately it’s all about Almond’s uncanny sense of drama and performance on songs like the sassy come-on “Undress Me,” the unnerving psychodrama of “Incestuous Love” and the closing standard “Yesterday When I Was Young.”

Against Nature cover

One day in mid-2015, Marc Almond made an unexpected announcement: a Kickstarter to fund a musical passion project, adapting the late 19th century literary classic A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans with the help of two frequent collaborators, poet Jeremy Reed and musician Othon. The funds were raised and Against Nature was the result, adding to his number of strikingly esoteric collaborations in the 2010s in particular, the trio turning the story of a nobleman pursuing ever more depraved passions into a theatrical cabaret of damnation and exultance.

Untitled cover

Beginning his solo career while Soft Cell was still initially underway, though rapidly barreling towards its first long-term hiatus, Untitled found Marc Almond working with a free-floating lineup of the Mambas, including The The’s main man Matt Johnson on guitar, to create a slightly chaotic but still engaging full-length, with production from then-young producer Flood helping with some focus. His covers throughout are notable, including “If You Go Away,” the first time he recorded the Jacques Brel song that would become one of his standard signature tunes.

The Stars We Are cover

With Marc Almond again switching labels and the Willing Sinners mutating into La Magia as his backing band, The Stars We Are felt like a refresh moment before even hearing a note — but far from being merely a refresh, it turned out to be the source of his biggest successes in years. So engaging was Almond’s part-orchestral/part-synthpop turn on this album that he scored his first American hit in a while, “Tears Run Rings,” while a cover of the Gene Pitney classic “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” with Pitney joining him in a duet for the single version, hit number one in the UK.

Torment and Toreros cover

The second and last Marc and the Mambas studio effort was the definition of indulgence on several levels, sprawling over two albums in the vinyl era (and the CD, for that matter) in an often lush and always darkly shaded demonstration of just how close to the edge Marc Almond had reached by that point. The vivid spite of “Catch a Falling Star” remains perhaps the most vicious thing Almond’s recorded — which is saying something! — but there’s nothing else quite like it from that time, a cabaret fantasia of emotional extremities.

Violent Silence/Flesh Volcano cover

A combination of two separate EPs released by Marc Almond in the mid-80s, Violent Silence/Flesh Volcano is a vivid and more than a little disturbing portrait of Almond’s more underground aesthetic, the counterbalance to his brighter pop turns of that decade. Flesh Volcano itself is a full collaboration with his Immaculate Consumptive musical partner Foetus, a blasting, chaotic performance by both, while Violent Silence was a quiet tribute to the work of Georges Bataille, Almond’s lyrics offsetting the calm stillness of the overall performances.

Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters cover

Named after its first song, a wry, audibly French-tinged celebration of taking care of yourself on those lonely nights, Mother Fist was one of Marc Almond’s strongest moments showing his consistent impulse to do what he wanted rather than what a label did. Songs like “Melancholy Rose” and “Ruby Red” retain sweeping pop glamour, but the vibe is smoky late-night bars and cabarets under red lights, setting the stage for his later album tributes to artists like Jacques Brel.

Orpheus in Exile: Songs of Vadim Kozin cover

Following the interest in and success of his collection of Russian songs, Heart On Snow, Marc Almond recorded a follow-up focusing on one of the artists he’d featured there — Vadim Kozim, a striking singer and songwriter who’d achieved massive success in Stalin’s time, but whose open homosexuality resulted in official disapproval and internal banishment. Orpheus in Exile’s title alone gives a sense of the stakes and little surprise Almond found his story of deep interest, as striking performances of songs like “Brave Boy,” “My Fire” and “Letter From Magadan” show.

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