If Cristina’s August Darnell-produced debut was disco taken to a ridiculous show-stopping extreme, her second and final effort was its near antithesis. For 1984’s Sleep It Off Ze alums traded jobs, and Don Was (of his own group, Was (Not Was), and later a Grammy-winning producer for Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time) oversaw production duties. This overlooked disc is a contemplative, seen-it-all affair, with the surplus disco sass replaced with edgy, brooding new-wave arrangements and the curt, mocking treatment of emotional issues giving way to an almost literary in-depth study of lovers and liars.
The one thing that remains is Cristina’s dramatic sense and recasting of typical singer roles. She was more thespian than chanteuse, more devil than diva, more drama queen than Material Girl. Adding to this mystique was Richard Strange, who wrote briefly about Cristina in his memoirs, calling her “an intriguing and perceptive girl, aged about twenty-two, and better-read than anyone I have met before or since.”
By the time she recorded Sleep It Off, Cristina was penning most of her own lyrics, establishing an observing and playacting role instead of fawning as Darnell’s cheerleader. She relishes in the dirty details of her forlorn characters while keeping an emotional distance and still maintaining a humorous jouissance. Reveling in an overblown Brechtian pathos on her own numbers, she also grabs some of the real thing with her version of Threepenny Opera’s “Ballad of Immoral Earnings.”
Sleep It Off paints a striking portrait of Cristina as a complex and demanding songwriter with diverse strengths. She examines a money-obsessed culture, confused about where buying power and stature end and where true affinities begin. You get starlets too concerned with their expensive clothes to even think about prospect of ending a nice date in an amorous way (“Don’t Mutilate My Mink”). You get a debonair and depressed model waiting her out shoots with the thought of spending her stained bounty (“Blue Money”). You get a frustrated school matron who kills her doctor husband, whose wealth and privilege breed her indifference and madness (“Deb Behind Bars”) — everyone a bunch of, to borrow one of Cristina’s terms, quicksand lovers who beguile and desert for want of money or fame or some hidden addiction.
Many of the more memorable lines she delivers meditate on love as a painful drug-like condition. On “The Lie of Love,” she purrs out dark appraisal of a rocky relationship: “What the hell dear/ the fact is we’re here/ let’s live the lie of love.” From “Rage and Fascination” comes “The flipside of love is hate, they say/ when I toss our coin/ only comes up one way/ but I keep tossing.” Don’t go on thinking these sentiments are flip and present for shock value only. Combined with the rampant drug abuse, deceitfulness, and utter contempt of her brief dramas, they relate a very dour view of America during the eighties, sharply focusing on the elite of her hometown New York.
The production from Don Was is haunting at moments, skeletal and icy synths mixing with somber percussion arrangements; raucous at others, bouncy bass, whirling sound effects and even punk-ish guitar in places. His knowledge and experience behind the boards complement Cristina’s complexity much more than August Darnell’s work. Some of the moods they conjure are very memorable, making Sleep It Off a rewarding album from an interesting personality.