An intoxicating throwback to Europe between the wars, Ute Lemper is the darkest diva of contemporary times, a rarity not swept up in the big voices and tempi of modernity. Her new Decca album “But One Day…” is a spectacularly executed waltz through the composers she has already fully ingested — Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzolla — though at her Conga Room stand, she ensures that all her interpretations start in a far corner of a darkened alley.
Backed by a jazz band, ice maker, air conditioner, credit card machine and bottles being tossed in the trash — is the Conga Room staff ever aware there’s a show taking place? — Lemper never once feels the need to shed the icy textures of the compositions she chooses to sing. Be they in French, Hebrew, English or her native German, Lemper delivers the songs as her legendary predecessors, first and foremost Lotte Lenya, would. Lemper, the contempo empress of the Weill songbook, avoids sounding like a re-creation as easily as she avoids sounding happy.
She introduces the evening as a celebration of the composers, which means a healthy dose of “Jennys and Johnnys, sailors and hookers” with a look at “the exploitation of humanity, the exploitation of love.” This is the area Lemper clearly feels most comfortable — her 2000 album “Punishing Kiss” found her, convincingly, interpreting works of writers who might be considered musical heirs to Brecht and Weill, among them Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Scott Walker.
Lemper has an engaging seriousness, a signifier of intellect that enhances the intensity of the words she sings. Her “Alabama Song” is more spooky than suggestive; a free and breathing “Moritat” sheds its oom-pah undertones and stays clear of the swing that informed its English translation, “Mack the Knife.” On Joni Mitchell’s 1976 tune “Black Crow,” she draws out its Weillian components and against a dense backing, she sings “in search of love and music/My whole life has been, illumination, corruption.” It reinforces the validity of the emotions firing Lemper’s material, illuminating, through her hardened and yet sexy persona, the applicability of art that originated in dark times and how, even today, those emotions are inescapable.