Conchita & Wiener Symphoniker - From Vienna With Love (Review)

From Vienna With Love

NOTE: Thomas Neuwirth, the man behind Conchita Wurst, is not transsexual, and therefore has male pronouns. Conchita Wurst however, who is credited as the album’s main artist, is a female character and therefore gets female pronouns.

Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes all it takes is material that already has proved to work fantastically in the past, with a sheer perfectly made new outfit.

Next to Palmen aus Plastik 2 by Raf Camora and Bonez MC and Christina Stürmer’s Überall zu Hause, From Vienna With Love was the most anticipated Austrian popular music album of 2018. It is the second studio album by Conchita Wurst, in the meantime only known mononymously as Conchita, the drag queen persona of singer Thomas Neuwirth that became Austria’s foremost celebrity of the decade after having won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 with Rise Like a Phoenix, which sparked a multimedial LGBTQ+ revolution by its sheer omnipresence that gave the country a huge boost in sexual and identity tolerance. Wurst’s overall appearance and attitude was different from other drag queens known in German language territory. She is an intelligent and self confident woman with an elegant, classy style that could take part in serious political debates without putting her sexuality in the foreground, while previous famous drag queens appeared mainly as novelty entertainers that could be straight out of Birds of a Feather. Of course, they helped raise the LGBTQ+ representation on TV, but Wurst seemed like a revelation that showed the average viewer a more natural approach. Conchita Wurst was known in Austria before her win, but she was a B-list celebrity that appeared on TV here and there. Afterwards, she was Lady Gaga.

Despite her face and name having been everywhere ever since, we got surprisingly little musical output from her. After the smash hit Rise Like a Phoenix, it took her one year before she released her self-titled debut album in 2015, and now another 3 years for her sophomore record. Although her popularity significantly decreased in the rest of Europe including Germany, both albums were chart toppers in Austria. Her first release already was one of the decade’s great pop records, but From Vienna With Love is sheer joy to listen to - and it is a cover album. The best one since Robbie Williams’ blockbuster Swing When You’re Winning.

Teaming up with the Wiener Symphoniker (Vienna Symphony), that, unlike the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) who have outstanding commercial successes with classical albums, were always very open for popular music and had a number one album with a Rainhard Fendrich collaboration, Conchita performs her take on movie themes, musical standards and pop songs from various decades, and also re-imagines her own biggest hit and write one new song. Most of the songs were originally sung by woman, and it is highly impressive how well Neuwirth manages to naturally sound this feminine without it ever coming off as unnatural or forced. The vocals are strong and expressive, yet playful and comfortably light. The fact that he manages to shine when constantly surrounded by a full blown orchestra only shows that he’s one of the greatest singers of his generation.

The album’s title is very appropriate, being an obvious reference to the James Bond movie From Russia With Love. For the casual listener, it might hint at the two 007 theme songs covered on the release (Writing’s On The Wall and Moonraker), which definitely was also on Conchita’s mind, but you need to know that when her smash hit Rise Like a Phoenix (itself an already very much orchestral song) was released, the Austrian press favorably compared it to the best of James Bond songs.

The Sound of Music is a song that everyone in the world is familiar with and knows by heart - except for Austria. The country still feeds off the international success of the musical of the same name - after all, tourism is Austria’s biggest source of money, and nothing sparked more interest in the nation - but barely a citizen knows of the film, let alone its popularity abroad. Instead, the title is usually associated with a very well known Falco song. In more recent years, there were attempts in bringing the musical to the public’s minds, including Wurst’s performance as Maria von Trapp that ultimately also made it onto this CD. Where Do I Begin, the theme of the heartbreaking cult movie Love Story (or for younger, urban music oriented listeners: the song that forms the basis of Dance with the Devil by Immortal Technique), has a bitterness that is an absolutely perfect match for the depressing, tragic tone of the movie. An already highly sad song, performed in an equally melancholic manner. Alanis Morissette’s already unique and heavy Uninvited gets turned into an orchestral hard rock number with a bit of Björk’s spirit hidden in between that marks the album’s most experimental, daring moment that may turn some of the listeners leaning more towards classical off, but which feels alive and wild. But Colors of the Wind is the most perfectly suited song for Wurst the album contains, and has one of the best vocal performances of the year. The Oscar-winning song from Disney’s Pocahontas sets a statement against racism and prejudices, while promoting a world view in which we are one with the Earth. Wurst herself became something like a messenger for mutual respect for all social groups, and if someone embodies the values of the tune, it is her, and she sings it with stunning beauty and sensitivity. The album ends with a classic song of German music history: Hildegard Knef’s late 60s song Für mich soll's rote Rosen regnen, the only non-English track on the record. It is a difficult task covering Knef, a legendary chanteuse and acclaimed songwriter that was known for not being a technically good singer but one with the most distinctive voices, rough and butch (she was often called the best singer that couldn’t sing, and she’s a magnificent overall artist). Neuwirth on the other hand sings the song perfectly and, ironically, more feminine than the androgynous Knef, giving it a completely new personality without ruining the original spirit.

Everything about From Vienna With Love was worth the wait. It’s a great demonstration of sheer talent of musicianship by each of the people involved. Blazing horns, playful harps, fine strings and a graceful voice that’s only worthy of an instrumentation of this scale. Cover albums are a tricky thing - more often than not they are a lackluster that somehow sound okay but barely do justice to either the originals or the artist’s own discography. But when they do work, they work exceptionally well. And this is the case here.