Doll In A Box / Sleep It Off
B+ / A-
t’s so obvious, isn’t it? You get a record label and then you ask your wife to make a record. What do you care? You’re a trust fund kid, you have money to burn. Luckily for Michael Zilkha, his wife at the time was Cristina Monet. And far from being some sort of trophy wife, Monet was a Harvard educated, Village Voice theater critic—hardly the makings for a horrendous vanity album. After the success of the John Cale produced “Disco Clone”, which eventually turned into a sort of Brechtian homage by the time of its release, it was clear that more music had to be made, preferably with the help of musicians on Zilkha’s fledgling Ze Records.
The first record made by Cristina, featured the legendary August Darnell as writer and producer of much of the material. Darnell had already made Machine's “There But For The Grace Of God Go I” and was working at Ze Records on his own record as Kid Creole, so the duo seemed to be perfect for one another: Cristina would provide the ultra-literate lyrics and Darnell would churn out the disco backing inspired by the aesthetic that Ze was chasing with releases by James Chance and Was (Not Was)—a particularly horn driven funky disco.
But despite having “Disco Clone” chosen as Melody Maker’s single of the week in advance of its release, Cristina, as it was known upon its release, was a slow-seller, much like the rest of Ze’s output at the time. It’s the typical story: the sound was just far enough out there to ward off potential mass audiences, marrying acoustic instruments, frenetic production by Darnell and the indelible personality of Cristina. What should have been a recipe for success, and for the most part is, didn’t catch on.
Perhaps it’s the frequency with which Cristina undercuts her songs by talking on the tracks instead of singing? Or maybe the sometimes obvious frailty of her voice compared to her background singers? Or even the extreme reliance on the same rhythms track after track by Darnell? Whatever the musical reason, it was improved immeasurably on Cristina’s next album, Sleep It Off.
More diverse, far-ranging, both completely of its time and completely outside time in every respect, Sleep It Off is very much a lost classic. Produced this time by Don Was, of Was (Not Was), the album reaches out way beyond the typical Ze sound to encompass a variety of sounds: “Ticket To The Tropics” is a lost Rio B-side, “The Lie of Love” is sophisto-pop in the Simply Red vein, while “Blue Money” is a Van Morrison cover that somehow makes synthesizers sound natural in an almost country bounce and “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” takes the Sex Pistols to task.
Judging by the liner notes, it took three years to finish the entire recording, and it’s easy to believe. The album takes in such enormous stylistic diversity that it’s almost hard to imagine how Don Was and Cristina spit each song back to you as perfectly formed and undeniably catchy as they are. But they do.
But, once again, the records are only half the story in Cristina’s narrative. After the relative failure of Sleep It Off, despite a three-and-a-half- star review in Rolling Stone, Cristina quit the business entirely. Never quite emerging out from under the idea that it was her husband’s nepotism that gave her a career in the business, Cristina has only now begun to be heralded as the star that she already was in the early 1980s. It’s been a long time coming, but hopefully the wait is worth it.