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Viv Albertine - Flesh

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Artist: Viv Albertine

Album: Flesh

Label: Ecstatic Peace!

Review date: Jun. 18, 2010


Viv Albertine - "If Love" (Flesh)


PiL, Simon and Garfunkel, Brötzmann and Bennink — unless they’re dead, everybody seems to get back together these days. But even though she played their first couple reunion gigs, Viv Albertine is not playing guitar with the Slits. This is to her credit. While the Slits’ stances against glamour and commercialism, their unrepentant amateurism, and their third world rhythmic leanings made them a genuinely radical presence back in the punk days, songs like “Shoplifting” haven’t aged well, and the sketchy production on their comeback album Trapped Animal hasn’t exactly enhanced their legacy. Albertine, on the other hand, is doing something that’s right for her now.

Also to her credit, Albertine has never cashed in her punk-cred chips. After the Slits broke up in 1981, she left music and went into filmmaking. By the time author Zoe Street Howe (whose Slits bio Typical Girls got the reunion ball rolling) tracked her down, she was living the housewife life. When the group reformed she hadn’t played a guitar in 25 years, and she relearned how to play the thing sitting in the car during her kid’s swimming lessons. As she acquired facility, she spontaneously began writing songs whose unflinching introspection came from a very different place than the Slits’ spirit of ‘76 snottiness. Unwilling to tolerate the cognitive dissonance between the two, she set about honing her new material, and becoming for the first time a solo performer. Flesh, a four-song EP that she recorded with drummer/producer Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitarist Steve Howe and husband of Zoe Street), is her debut.

Albertine poses naked inside Flesh‘s sleeve. While this echoes the Slits’ notorious cover pose on their first LP Cut, it also serves as an illustrative metaphor for Albertine’s writing MO, which is to strip away cherished illusions. The word “love” appears in the title of two songs and it’s the subject of all four, but they aren’t love songs so much as they’re about challenging the idea of love. Coming from some bummed-out twentysomething writing in the guise of a broken-hearted teen, that’d be nothing special. But Albertine is a woman in her mid-50s, who’s been married, had a child, lost a parent, and lived long enough to see the cyclic nature of human connection play out; she’s learned a few things, and is also blessed with the song-writing chops to put her ideas across in memorable and hummable form.

Flesh‘s music isn’t tethered to any particular decade or style, although it has some Slits-like elements. “If Love’s” na-na-na-na chorus recalls their non-compliant derisiveness, and there are hints of the Slits’ affiliation with reggae in Dennis Bovell’s dubwise mixes. Other details betray decades of music fandom; on “Never Come,” she tears off a Sonic Youth-like discordant scale and laments her inability to sum up a sentiment like Neil Young, and the balance of piano and organ tones and dynamic melodies remind me of Flying Nun pop groups like the Chills and Able Tasmans. But the arrangements don’t sound retro or intended to pay homage so much as they’re meant to complement Albertine’s voice, which is a tad wispy and uncertain at the top of its range, but nimble and soft enough to deliver some hard words without feeling like a punch.

When Albertine opened for the Raincoats in New York last fall, she gave a new song called “Confessions of a MILF,” a nuanced performance that laid bare the tensions between artistic and married life. This EP is pretty swell, but the best may yet be to come.

By Bill Meyer

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