The Daily Telegraph
Songs from a Hollywood hotel room for the end of an affair
Pop Room 29/Chilly Gonzales and Jarvis Cocker Barbican
While on tour in the Nineties as Pulp’s frontman and an unlikely Britpop pin-up, Jarvis Cocker stayed at the legendary Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, and got dumped by a girlfriend. It’s a banality compared with the rock-star room-trashings, drug overdoses and suicides that Chateau Marmont has experienced, but when Cocker found himself there again, in 2012, he decided to dedicate his first musical project in eight years to his ill-starred earlier visit.
Room 29 is an album of 16 songs that Cocker conceived and composed with the Canadian classical pianist-cum-rapper Chilly Gonzales. Both are storytellers, and for the live debut performance they invited their audience into a recreation of the hotel room itself. It has its own baby grand piano and was once where actress Jean Harlow spent an ill-fated honeymoon. (Instead of sleeping with her new husband, she had an affair with Clark Gable.) The billionaire pilot, film producer and recluse Howard Hughes also stayed in the room.
Through Gonzales’s deftly tumbling melodies, deceptive in their richness, and Cocker’s lilting words, the ghosts of Golden Age Hollywood drifted invisibly into the room; in the lyrics, they humoured the bell boys and mused aloud on the gulf between dreams and reality, the make-believe and muck of the movies.
Cocker’s Sheffield tones shouldn’t be able to tell these Californian sunbaked stories so well, but the former frontman – still arch, still gangly, still in suit and glasses – was a wonderful showman. With contrapposto and the flick of a wrist, Cocker drew out humour as black and sweet as treacle from his observational lyrics, only to pinpoint tragedy with a faint falsetto croon seconds later.
The chemistry of Cocker and Gonzales was what the audience had paid for and they duly got it: Gonzales, clad in a dressing-gown, offered gravity to Cocker’s whimsy, delivering asides as dry as a good martini from his piano stool.
This was good enough by itself, but too often the captivating magic of Cocker and Gonzales’s performance was interrupted by gimmicks. Audience members were invited up; there were clips from classic Hollywood movies; and singing from inside a television.
Only occasionally – when Gonzales’s collaborators, Kaiser Quartet, were amusingly ordered on stage by room service, for instance – did these interferences add anything.
Gonzales and Cocker claimed they wanted to create the intimacy of a hotel room, but it took them until the encore to achieve it, when the pair sat around the piano as if it were a bar at last orders, and sang a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Paper Thin Hotel. Compared with that, the rest was just bell boys and whistles.
Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales is on Deutsche Grammophon