As I sorted through the newly released albums that arrived one day in 1984 at the record store where I worked, I came across a record that grabbed me with its striking cover image. I had never heard of this Cristina artist before, and certainly not of her album Sleep It Off. One look at such song titles on the back cover as “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” and “He Dines Out on Death,” and I instantly had to give this album a listen.
From the pick scratch and roaring Sex Pistols-like snarling guitar complemented by a catchy synthesizer riff that kicks off the album opener “Don’t Mutilate My Mink,” I was instantly sold. Then Cristina’s vocals kicked in and my first impression was, “She sounds like a female Lou Reed!” That’s a very basic attempt at describing her voice, which is not easy to do. Cristina reaches for notes she won’t hit but backs her attempts with enough gusto to forgive the near misses. There’s also a throatiness to her voice that fits her world-weary lyrics perfectly.
Those lyrics are what set Sleep It Off apart from the works of Cristina’s 1984 chanteuse peers. While that year Cyndi Lauper sang about the pursuit of good times and Madonna crooned about love making her feel like a virgin again, Cristina sang about the pitfalls and downfalls of her socially elite background — she was a Harvard drop-out and Village Voice writer when she met future husband and heir to the Mothercare retail empire Michael Zilka, for whose ZE record label she recorded.
Upper-crust scandals abound in her self-penned lyrics, from being pursued for a free trip to sunnier climes rather than for love in “Ticket to the Tropics”; to leaving starving artists for well-heeled partners in “Quicksand Lovers”; to using a wife’s suicide to garner favors in “He Dines Out on Death”: “‘How could she do it? Let’s help him live through it’/Say the New York hostesses/‘He takes it so well/He lends such distinction/To her self-extinction/Let’s throw him a party/He must be in Hell.’” Listeners will be hard-pressed to find this sort of first-person perspective on other rock albums, no matter the decade.
Cristina also put her decidedly unique spin on experiences that even the most common among us can relate to, such as horrible yet nevertheless continued relationships in “Rage and Fascination” (“When you’re cruel, that’s not what keeps me here/I’m not on a torch song bender/You’re too bitchy for my notions of a man/And your arms are far too slender”); the art of day-to-day living in “What’s a Girl to Do?” (“My life is in a turmoil/My thighs are black and blue/My sheets are stained, so is my brain/What’s a girl to do?”); to ultimatums in romantic relationships in the aforementioned “Quicksand Lovers” (“Whips plus three’s the life I’ve led/There’s the door or here’s the bed”).
Cristina and her producer Don Was knew how to pick perfect cover songs for her, as well. The sleaze amongst the trials and tribulations of modeling is palpable in her take on Van Morrison’s “Blue Money” and her approach to the extramarital-affair story of “She Can’t Say That Anymore” belies its country music roots. One of the stand-out tracks of Sleep It Off is the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill number from “The Threepenny Opera” called “The Ballad of Immoral Earnings,” which sees our heroine Jenny reminisce with her former lover, the criminal Macheath, about the “whorehouse where we used to live.” This is harrowing stuff, but Cristina’s vocal stylings absolutely nail the gutter-level feelings in the song, with lyrics such as “Once I was pregnant, so the doctor said/So we reversed positions on the bed/You thought your weight would make it premature/But in the end we flushed it down the sewer.”
I mentioned earlier that Cristina’s voice made me think about a “female Lou Reed” comparison; the subject matter on Sleep It Off makes a strong companion piece in lyrical spirit to Reed’s Street Hassle and The Blue Mask albums, as well. The seemingly opposite worlds of the seedy underbelly of society that Reed explores and the decadent lifestyles of the rich and privileged in Cristina’s songwriting world actually have much in common. Consider this example from the broody marriage-of-convenience effort “The Lie of Love”: “She needed his strength/He needed her fear/She’s scared of the dark/He’s scared that he’s queer.”
The 2004 CD rerelease contains some extra tracks including the humorous yet heartbreaking Christmas ditty “Things Fall Apart” and a cover of Prince’s “When U Were Mine,” which Lauper also covered on her album released just before Cristina’s. Unfortunately the CD rerelease also reordered the tracks differently from the original album.
Sleep It Off’s producer Don Was is one of the two founding members of the band Was (Not Was). Both he and fellow member David Was play on the album, which also features Doug Fieger of The Knack and No Wave saxophonist James Chance, along with several other musicians. Guitars and synthesizers are the key instruments throughout the album, which features a variety of tempos and textures but always remains true to its dark, downtrodden heart, no matter how upbeat a particular tune might sound. Sad, minor-chord progressions are contrasted with songs with a more playful feel. Don’t worry about this being too depressing of a journey — like Leonard Cohen and The Smiths, Cristina knew to temper her lyrics with wry, dark humor.
Sleep It Off is Cristina’s second and, to date, final album. If you’re curious about her eponymous debut, it’s largely an offbeat No Wave/new wave disco effort that comes nowhere close to reaching the brilliance of Sleep It Off. Cristina’s astounding but largely overlooked second effort is one of my 10 favorite rock albums of all time and I’m happy to have accidentally stumbled on it during its first week of release.