from the disco vault – Grace Jones: Portfolio

GRACE JONES – Portfolio (LP, Island Records 1977)

Grace Jones’s debut is certainly not the most innovative disco album released in 1977 – that price would have to go to Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday, if only for the dazzling six minutes of ‘I Feel Love’ amid a heap of perfunctory filler – but it’s one of the most consistently enjoyable, and one of my personal favourite disco albums of all time. In a genre so centred around the 12” single, that’s a distinction.

Grace was still three years away from her successful make-over into a New Wave-tinged WoMan Machine with the emotionless vocal delivery of a robot dominatrix. While her vocals on Portfolio are often dismissed for being nothing more than decorative, in reality the loose character of the music allows for more expressiveness and freedom to showcase the range of her voice than the limitations imposed upon her by Grace Jones The Concept later on. If you think Grace Jones can’t sing, you should check out her version of Piaf’s ’La vie en rose’ – for a disco singer, her vocal range is nothing short of stunning. And while there’s already a certain toughness and determination in her voice, she never sounds impenetrable or monotonous.

In contrast to the rigid four-to-the-floor disco whose formula was cemented with 1977’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Portfolio largely contains slower tempos and soaring arrangements that more closely resemble the Philly soul popular earlier that decade. Which isn’t surprising, since the musicians that producer Tim Moulton assembled for the album were the same as those that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the prime architects of the Philly sound, had used for most of their recordings on Philadelphia International. As a result, Portfolio features well thought-out, lofty arrangements that leave the individual motifs space to breathe and convey that swaying motion found in the most elevated of mid 70s disco soul. Lush strings set against warm basslines generate a light funk feel, while long dreamy instrumental passages carry the listener away like the compressed quality of most post-Saturday Night Fever disco rarely could. ‘La Vie En Rose‘, the album’s standout track, features some gorgeous acoustic guitars, with crisp percussion adding to the organic feel of the instrumentation. Add to that Moulton’s excellent production, and you’ve got pure ear candy; play it on a Sunday morning, and you’ll even enjoy your hangover.

Only towards the end of the record, when the classic club dramaturgy demands an increase in tempo, does Portfolio come close to standard issue late Seventies disco: the airplay format of ‘That’s The Trouble’ and the Gloria Gaynoresque ‘I Need A Man’ prompt both songs to come to the point as quickly as possible, and the way the mildly melodramatic verses anticipate a simple chorus amidst swirling strings is the same familiar formula used to conceive every Boney M single. Even then, the tracks are saved from being generic by strong melodies and Grace’s oddball charisma.

Music critics routinely slay the first half of Portfolio for offering nothing but showtunes set to a disco backbeat and executed with a “flat” voice. Don’t listen to these people. If anything, these cover versions are superior to some of the more acclaimed tracks on Side Two, effectively communicating the playfulness of a nightlife addict who tries not to take life too seriously. As for “flat singing”, such remarks more likely correspond to a serious music critic’s perceived obligation to slash a singer who is also a fashion model rather than to actual observations.

There’s a light-heartedness about Portfolio rarely found in Grace’s later output. True, it’s a pure disco album aimed at an urban club crowd, and light years away from her more idiosyncratic, if more contrived later product. Even though the emphasis on her personality became much stronger on her 80s albums when the focus zoomed in on Grace The Character, she seems somehow more sincere here, as if she was genuinely having a blast.

Portfolio was part 1 of Miss Jones’s ‘disco trilogy’ with producer Tim Moulton and would be followed by Fame and Muse. If you own a record player, I recommend you look for the vinyl version for a warmer and richer sound.

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