The Real Phoebe Legere

Josh Lawrence | October 2, 1997

Phoebe Legere would have been the archetypal mystery guest on that old game show "To Tell the Truth."

Imagine it:

"I am Phoebe Hemenway Legere, a classically trained pianist, versed in Chopin by the age of 9. I play more than a half-dozen instruments, including the accordion, piano, guitar, and cello."

"My vocal range effortlessly stretches four and a half octaves, and my show often includes standards by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin."

"A Vassar graduate and Mayflower descendant, I studied music at the New England Conservatory. I have written film soundtracks and screenplays, as well as theatrical works."

Shame, Depravity

"I am Phoebe Legere. I have a penchant for wearing homemade lingerie on stage and baiting the crowd with sexual innuendoes while playing the piano with my high heels."

"My backup band was called the Four Nurses of the Apocalypse, and one of my recent acts was titled 'Shame, Depravity, and Lesbianism in the Twilight of a Dying Civilization.'"

"I have played the blond bimbo type in such bizarre films as 'Toxic Avenger' I, II, and III, and written and directed my own movie, 'Marquis de Slime.'"

Will the real Phoebe Legere please stand up?

Anyone who knows the fiercely original Ms. Legere knows the performer is too multifaceted to be categorized. Those who don't know her now have a wonderful opportunity to get acquainted.

The cabaret innovator has just released her newest CD, "Last Tango in Bubbleland," a collection of wild new Legeresque pop compositions mixed with a balance of straightforward ballads, folk, and R&B.

The CD's lavish production and pop-oriented feel could spell a breakthrough for Ms. Legere, who, despite her years of nightclub renown and soundtrack projects, hasn't had much success in the record realm. "Last Tango" is packed with enough ambition, texture, and variety to prick up anyone's ears, Phoebe fan or not.

Marketable

From the first dance beats of "Amazing Love" and its rap-reggae intro, one can feel the pull toward the mainstream. The first four numbers are peppered with funk riffs, drum breaks, and pop-friendly choruses, all of which make for quite marketable material.

Yet none of Ms. Legere's trademark quirkiness is sacrificed in the highly produced mix. She still invites her listeners not to take it all too seriously, which has always been at the heart of the entertainer's act.

"I never thought that love would find us/As I lay working on my tan/But as we know, love runs the show, and it has since the universe began," she girlishly croons in the album's first verse.

Sex And Love

From the light dance feel of "Amazing Love," the CD moves into the more naughty realm of "Madly," a darkly atmospheric number contrasting sex and love, musically and lyrically.

"One hand on the wheel, and one hand on my thigh/He waves his glass and tells me lies/It's all so elegant and so debauched/We'll have sex and you can watch," Ms. Legere sings over an insidious funk beat, before returning to the song's purer, melodic chorus about falling in love.

The CD hovers in this kind of theatrical realm through "Love Bubble," in which Ms. Legere coquettishly declares (with English inflection), "Don't try to burst my bubble with your wretched little pin/Don't try to deflate me, just come on in/Be in my bubble, we'll float on the air/Don't try to drag me down with your lame suburban hair."

Rocky Or Bobby's?

The way Ms. Legere cloaks her toughness and swagger in her sweet and smooth voice throughout "Last Tango" is reminiscent of Debbie Harry in Blondie.

At the same time, the CD's lush production, swirled with electronic sound effects, spoken-word verses, and surreal images, seems like something Laurie Anderson might have imagined in a pop-music guise.

That might not seem very intriguing to those raised on the piano-bar Phoebe Legere - the Legere of show tunes, Edith Piaf numbers, and accordion solos.

In fact, the first block of "Last Tango" sounds more like a modern update to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" than an evening set at the loungy Bobby Van's, where, in the late '80s, Ms. Legere first endeared herself to East End audiences.

"Last Tango" isn't all about pop, however. Just as the funk and theatrics of the first numbers start to wear, the CD downshifts into the hauntingly pretty ballad "I'm Coming (To You)":

The Irish-tinged lament, about a woman struggling to rekindle a love affair, puts Ms. Legere's flawless voice back in the forefront. In typical style, she milks the title's sexual connotations.

After a brief return to guitar riffs and funk in "Armageddon A Go-Go," the CD ends with a block of more traditional gems, most notably the catchy R&B tune "Lady Friday."

While Ms. Legere and her producer, Tristan Avakian, may have laid their bets on "Amazing Love" to emerge as a single, "Lady Friday's" easy-rocking flow, catchy chorus, and great solos have all the trimmings.

Purely Phoebe

Another highlight is Ms. Legere's bittersweet serenade to New York City, "N.Y. Nightmare." As The Pogues did in their classic "Fairy Tale in N.Y.," Ms. Legere captures the bleakness of the city in an ironically beautiful melody.

The CD's final cut, a soft, sad folk ballad called "Stephanie," is also moving, and a fitting way to wrap up a nearly one-hour tour of Ms. Legere's versatility.

Though she is helped by a core of impeccable studio musicians on the CD, "Last Tango in Bubbleland" is pure Phoebe Legere.

A New Beginning

She is everywhere in the mix, providing her own elaborate backup vocals and filling the gaps not only with her patented piano and accordion, but also with cello, guitar, harmonica, bells, and even ukulele.

Much of the electronic enhancements that provide the album's rich texture also come from Ms. Legere, who plays the piano and accordion through a midi system as well as acoustically.

"Last Tango in Bubbleland" might imply an end to something (or maybe it's just a continuation of Ms. Legere's long-running Armageddon fixation), but with an impressive recording like this, she may be on the verge of a whole new beginning.