Cristina’s eponymous debut from 1980 is perhaps the most humorous disco album ever issued. But after spending the past few months with the record, I am still wondering if this is entirely a good thing. Ze Records has reissued this perplexing debut as Doll in the Box, adding a few extra tracks to justify the name change. With August Darnell writing and producing most of the album, it’s essentially an extension of his Kid Creole persona and sound. Only here, it’s not a self-deprecating zoot-suited Latino but a quirky disco queen who fronts the bizarre mix of big band-cum-Caribbean rumba.
Due to this, most of Doll in the Box plays out like forgotten episodes of some campy TV series. Opener “Jungle Love” chronicles a somewhat predictable and light-hearted story of native ritual: marrying a woman and an ape. “Don’t Be Greedy,” “La Poupee Quit Fait Non” and “Temporarily Yours” — all variations on similar relationship spats — are reminiscent of I Love Lucy: fun, zany and bitter, but ultimately forgettable. And “Blame It on Disco,” with its lackadaisical pace, decently arranged Latin percussion and brass blasts, winds the whole cabaret-kitsch affair down. Despite Darnell’s flair for novelty and quirk, most of the songs would quickly tire if it weren’t for the fascinating woman behind the microphone.
Cristina Monet, first scholar at both Harvard and London’s Central School of Drama, then aspiring theater critic and scenester model in New York, linked up with Michael Zilkha, Ze Records founder and her future husband, during the late seventies. Having inherited a giant trust, Zilkha had decided to begin a record label “marrying disco and punk,” and he began by purchasing the rights to “Disco Clone” from some anonymous Harvard undergrad.
This was to become Cristina’s first single, although she didn’t know it at the time. Finding it “without a doubt, the worst song I have ever heard,” Zilkha dared her to record it herself. Using all her dramaturgical zest, she multi-tracked a dozen cheeky clones, interjecting some humor into an essentially dull disco exercise. Before she knew it, Cristina Monet was Cristina the recording artist. Her brief output spanned only two albums and a handful of other appearances, all of which are collected on this disc and another recent reissue from Ze, Sleep It Off.
More on her voice: distinctly suited to her performance style, it can mew, chirp, growl, yelp, coo, sexily stretch, drop two octaves instantly; exude fascination, regret, surprise and boredom in equal measures; and even coax compassion for some of the silly characters she loves to inhabit. Still, parallels can be drawn to other top female artists of this fertile post-disco era. Although she didn’t have the ostensible range of the flamboyant German chanteuse, her theatrical and sometimes hysterical delivery mirrors Nina Hagen, especially when growling a biting line like “I won’t share you with another mate/ I’m not that liberal and you’re not that great” on “Don’t be Greedy.” Another point of reference is the icy detachment of Gina X, whose mincing deadpan sing-speak informs Cristina’s coy and cool side.
The bonus tracks on the Doll in the Box reissue compile superfluous versions of singles; two versions each of “Disco Clone” and Cristina’s rendition of the Beatles “Drive My Car.” The one essential addition is a dark rendition of Peggy Lee’s poignant hit “Is That All There Is?” It was suppressed by the original writers but has remained a cult hit in the circles it was allowed to filter through. Cristina and Darnell conjure a devilish British psych-pop feel with a prominent Animals-like jangly guitar following descending piano chords. Muted handclaps and slide-whistle are thrown in for good measure. Cristina crucially alters the lyrics, detailing encounters with fire, disco and love that all fall woefully short of her expectations. Rejecting an urge to “just slit (my) throat and shut up,” her contemplation of death concludes it must be deadly bore, too. This prompts, in the final chorus, the famous call “Let’s break out the booze (replaced with ‘ludes’ at one point)/ and have a ball/ if that’s all there is.”