On the cover of her recently released album, Punishing Kiss, Ute (pronounced ooo-tah) Lemper looks dangerous. Donning tight, black leather pants and tank top, she looks like a cross between Madonna in her Human Nature video and Annie Lennox when she was with the Eurythmics. Lemper bears an uncanny resemblance to Lennox and boasts the sultry voice characteristic of the Eurythmics’ vocalist. Her similarities with Madonna end at the outfit.
On Punishing Kiss Lemper, who will perform at Lisner Auditorium Sunday, combines pop music and the sounds from musical theater. However, it clearly leans to the theatrical music more than the pop sounds blaring on radios today. Lemper portrayed Velma Kelly in the production of Chicago in London’s West End. Numerous songs on the album resemble music from Chicago, and it’s easy to picture Lemper in the role. Her seductive voice, which at time sounds harsh, resonates with the murderous quality that filters through every aspect of Chicago. The opening song, The Case Continues, could easily appear in the musical.
Elvis Costello writes three songs on the album. These songs, Passionate Fight, Couldn’t You Keep That to Yourself and Punishing Kiss, tend to sound more from the musical theater genre. Passionate Fight contains a few pop-esque rhythms. The repetitive sounds stick in your head, and you find yourself humming along. Yet, the style of the song makes it more like the music you would hear on the soundtrack from a recent Broadway musical.
The other two songs written by Costello clearly fall into the realm of musical theater. On the album’s title song, fingers tickle the piano and horns blare, as Lemper’s voice skyrockets. Her voice could easily reach the back row of a theater. In Couldn’t You Keep That to Yourself, Lemper’s voice, barely audible, begins the song as a soft strumming of a guitar fills the background. Throughout the entire song, she seems to be seducing an audience.
And Lemper can seduce. She hits the apex of her seduction abilities on The Part You Threw Away, a song by country artist Tom Waits. The slow rhythm, the temptress organ in the background and Lemper’s vocals come together in one solid attempt to lure the audience, and in most cases, it does sound sexual.
Lemper excels on the songs with the musical-theater tendencies. On these tracks, she can use the power of her voice. Although the album is billed as a meshing of pop and jazz, Lemper only dabbles in pop – and rightly so.
She sticks with music that highlights her strength. You can picture Lemper parading around stage, conveying the song’s story through her body movements and the song. The album truly showcases Lemper’s talent and is an enjoyable listen – except for two songs.
On Tango Ballad and Split, Lemper sings with Neil Hannon. Hannon is a character singer. He is the man who is cast as the evil character in a show because his voice exudes a sinister feeling. He would be the perfect man to sing You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. Lemper seems to try to match his cruel edge note for note, but it detracts from her voice. Luckily, Hannon will not be playing with Lemper at Lisner.
With experience in musical theater and a melang? of songs resonating with qualities characteristic of musical theater, Lemper will put on quite a show.
Ute Lemper performs at Lisner Auditorium Sunday at 8 p.m. Student tickets cost $15, and tickets for the general public cost $30.