Room 29 has the feeling of being far more ambitious than it ultimately ends up.
Hollywood in general—and Old Hollywood in particular—has long held a certain level of fascination, what with the tawdry tales of stars and starlets acting on any and all desires, secret or otherwise. From Kenneth Anger’s scandalous Hollywood Babylon and its racy depictions of a pre-WWII Hollywood through to our modern obsession with the lives of celebrities and their comings and goings, we as a society have been fascinated by the famous and all the faux reality they represent. They seem to live mythic lives outside the realm of what most of us can even imagine. Because of this, we often project histories and interpretations on otherwise mundane individuals, imbuing them with a sort of romanticism that would seem trite even in the treacliest Hollywood fare.
And yet as these modern-day gods and goddesses are little more than corporeal beings, we common folk can tread the same hallowed ground as those we know only through what they project on the silver screen. One of the more notorious Hollywood landmarks is the Chateau Marmont, a legendary hotel that has seen generations of the famous and the infamous pass through its doors. Completed in 1929, the hotel has been the location for both the golden age of the Hollywood elite and the studio system, as well as the height of rock ‘n’ roll excess.
Something of a West Coast Chelsea Hotel, the Chateau Marmont has been home to creative types from Hunter S. Thompson to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Tim Burton, all of whom have cited the hotel as a fount of creative inspiration. Comedic genius John Belushi spent his final moments on the grounds of the hotel, dying in Bungalow 3 in March of 1982. Given its long history and inextricable link to celebrity culture, it’s easy to see how and why an artist and keen social observer like former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker would find inspiration of his own within the historic walls.
Having spent varying amounts of time at the hotel beginning at the height of Pulp’s Britpop celebrity, Cocker seems comfortable here. It suits his personality and lyrical proclivities to a T, allowing for a sort of post-modern cabaret/musical commentary on those who have left something of themselves behind within the walls of the hotel. Using the titular room as his starting point, Cocker sing-speaks tales of Clara Clemmons—daughter of one Mark Twain— (“Clara”), Howard Hughes (“Howard Hughes Under the Microscope”) and Jean Harlow (“Bombshell”). And as the room in question actually features a baby grand piano, Cocker enlists the help of former electro producer and pianist Chilly Gonzales as his primary accompanist.
Creating softly melancholic, introspective piano melodies along the lines of those featured on his Solo Piano releases, Gonzales here seeks to create an aesthetic that is as much in keeping with an impressionistic read of Hollywood history as it is the tawdry thematic details in Cocker’s imagined character studies. Having recorded the music in advance of Cocker’s vocals, there tends to be a great deal of push/pull between the two. It’s as though Cocker, rather than crafting any sort of discernible melodies, instead opted to improvise his conversational vocal tracks atop Gonzales’ delicate piano lines, often struggling to follow. Album teaser “Tearjerker” serves as the album’s most successful blend of this otherwise loosely assembled approach, Cocker’s hushed vocals weaving their way around and through Gonzales’ Satie-esque piano.
More extended monologue dressed up as a concept album, Room 29 feels better suited to a stage production than standalone musical piece. One can imagine Cocker brooding about a sparsely designed set, delivering his maudlin histories (particularly the creepy “Daddy, You’re Not Watching Me”) with a wry actor’s wit while Gonzales provides continuous underscoring and interstitial passages perhaps accompanying faded photographs or grainy black and white footage of Hollywood historian David Thomson’s recitations that appear sporadically throughout.
Sparsely arranged and presented (the album’s cover is merely a blank creamy white with the performers’ names and the title), Room 29 has the feeling of being far more ambitious than it ultimately ends up. An intriguing concept, one would hope the duo take this as a starting point for a continued partnership either further exploring the material herein or their potential for a classic pairing along the lines of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. Until then, all we’re left with is a collection of songs that strives to maintain a narrative through line while often feeling as though the whole thing could careen off the rails at any moment. With both being such talented performers, it’s a shame they ultimately weren’t quite able to live up to the inherent potential their pairing could have provided.