The Incredible Anthony Adverse was a best-seller for el Records, which makes sense because it's truly an eccentric gem. The cover of the CD boasts, "On screen or off, an original from the outset," a typically colloquial yet oblique declaration from the el Records myth makers. But, "original" certainly defines her.
The disc launches with a brief, and gothically gnarly, instrumental for chamber orchestra. The first vocal track is an outlandish recounting of the Garden of Eden story, complete with diminished chords, the Cookie Monster-ish voice of God, and a kazoo solo. It's ebullient, ridiculous, and campy, the whole album being a camp masterpiece. El Records specialized in the stylized, the artificial, and the outmoded, combined with a sensibility for the literate, humorous, and ironic. Anthony Adverse was able to fully engage herself in these tunes, and takes them on with utter conviction whether they require a throaty cabaret voice, a mellow jazz voice, or a "mod" pop voice. Her singing is a bit like acting, she comes up with a character for every necessity. It gets you wondering though, what was the motivation behind this strange recording, what were the circumstances, and what is it with all these eccentric songs that mix pop, with jazz and novelties?
The best of the songs have a timeless quality that is difficult to pin down. The Red Shoes Waltz, Maria Celesta, and Grisha's Birthday all have a vaguely mid 1960's tint. Now Listen sounds more antiquated, like a small vocal group from the 1950's. The high point for me, emerging after many, many spins, would have to be Imperial Violets, an impeccable tune which turns up as #55 on Jonathan Bogart's thoughtful list of 100 best songs of the 80's:
The songs on this disc still continue to draw me in. I listen closer and closer each time, attempting to catch all the lyrics, hear how the instruments fit together, and to decipher the chord changes which are incredibly svelte, sublime and deceptive.
Credit is due Louis Philippe, who wrote most of the songs on this disc, including all the best ones. He also provided the arrangements and most of the vocal and instrumental background. Let's admit, a fair number of popular songs are just riffs with a vocal layered above, the tunes of which employ a few steps of the blues scale. Louis Philippe wrote these songs the old fashioned way. There are distinct melodies within defined structures, and sophisticated modulations crafted in harmonies that borrow from the jazz and classical idioms.
In the late 1970's, the teenaged Julia Gilbert was a member of a couple of punk bands, Popular Theory, and Five Or Six. Subsequently recruited by Mike Alway as a solo artist for el Records, she was renamed Anthony Adverse, and paired with Louis Philippe for the album The Red Shoes, a tribute to the 1948 Powell/Pressburger film. The original is long out of print, but those tracks are included on this "best of" collection, which appends some of her singles to the Red Shoes song cycle, along with covers of 60's hits by Mary Wells and the Shangri La's.
After The Red Shoes album, Anthony Adverse released Spin, a collaboration with the late composer and songwriter, Daemion Barry, which seems now very dated as a late 80's production, and sadly lacks the eccentricity which make el Records releases so engagingly outre.
Julia Gilbert retired the Anthony Adverse persona before the 90's even began, leaving behind very few images, and apparently no interviews or videos. Today, Julia writes scripts for the long running TV series in the UK, Eastenders. Over twenty years later, there is a lingering nostalgia over her haunting image. Momus recently posted in his blog about meeting her once, and being fairly starstruck in her presence.
The sound of The Incredible Anthony Adverse has the power to immediately obliterate the everyday world, plunging you into a whimsical and insular daydream of refined and charming kookiness. Once you enter it, it's very difficult to leave.