The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Sleep It Off and Doll In The Box by Cristina

Published on March 30th, 2011 in: Back Off Man I'm A Feminist, Feminism, Issues, Music, Music Reviews, Retrovirus, Reviews |

By Chelsea Spear

Picture it: the Lower East Side, early 1980s. ZE Records had become the hot indie label, renowned for their tweaking of the nascent disco and no wave genres. The label incubated up-and-coming talent like James Chance and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and helped spur the Waitresses on to trivia-question status with both of their hits.

While all of these artists have remained in the spotlight, one of the most interesting and peculiar talents got lost in the shuffle: Cristina. This one-named wunderkind of Brechtian disco pastiches, Lieber and Stoller covers and later, an album worthy of comparison with Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, all but disappeared after her second album, Sleep It Off, barely got released in the States. A few years ago, the reformed ZE reissued Cristina’s discography. How does it stand up, after thirty years?

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Cristina’s eponymous debut (which ZE reissued as Doll In The Box) at times seems like more of a showcase for the talents of producer August “Kid Creole” Darnell. His production juxtaposes rich melodies and horn charts straight out of a Carmen Miranda movie with thumping disco beats. At times, the exoticism of the lyrics (“Jungle Love”) and Cristina’s vocals (the faux Mexican accent on “Blame it on Disco”) strike a sour note from a more contemporary perspective. While the 1940s-meets-disco approach serves Cristina’s urbane, Dorothy Parker-influenced lyrical perspective, at times the album seems like a Kid Creole album with deadpan, spoken-sung vocals.

Cristina’s cover of Lieber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?”—with its tinkling piano, clips of dialogue, shifts in lyrics, and abrupt denouement—almost serves as a preview of coming attractions for her second album, Sleep It Off. As with her free-form version of Peggy Lee’s standard (which Lieber and Stoller forced ZE to recall), Cristina’s second album parlayed her gilded upbringing and posh education in Cambridge into a searing, critical rebuke of the elitism and problematic gender relations in the upper classes. Unlike the ornate production of Doll In The Box, Sleep It Off has a more intimate sound, based around bass and drums and Cristina’s arch voice (which at times suggests actress Katherine Helmond). This focus on Cristina’s voice lends some tracks—such as “The Lie of Love,” the tale of a loveless marriage—a surprising poignancy.

What happened to Cristina? Though her albums had a sophisticated and imminently listenable mien, her keen intellect hardly found a wide audience. One A&R rep was even heard to say, “”There will be a Cristina, but it won’t be Cristina—she’s too intellectual.” Her musical career more or less over, Cristina married ZE honcho Michael Zilkha and “retired” to Texas, where she described her life as “Madame Bovary of the freeway” in a 2005 interview with Elisabeth Vinticelli.

While other artists followed in her stead (including a similarly mono-named dance diva that lived on the Lower East Side in the early ’80s), very few of them pulled off this kind of dance music with the sophistication and wit with which Cristina imbued it. Rumors of a third album recorded in France have circulated since ZE’s reissue of these albums, but regardless, these records are still available.

For more on the reissues of these two albums, please visit the Cristina section of the ZE Records website.

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