Various Artists – Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited

Various Artists
Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited

This 16-track compilation of Serge Gainsbourg (the late French singer, song-writer, provocateur, and icon; husband of Jane Birkin; father of Charlotte Gainsbourg; more) covers, sung in English (and thereby automatically losing some allure and cachet), exudes a mostly too-cool-for-school hipness by some of the leading lights in the alternative music universe. I’ve read raves about Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited – and the line-up of talent is stellar – but the execution leaves much to be desired. I was expecting a steaming cup of bitter espresso, not lukewarm café au lait…

I mean, how can you go wrong with tracks from Portishead, Tricky, Marianne Faithfull, Placebo, The Rakes, The Kills, and Nina Persson (of The Cardigans) – and that’s just half of the artist roster. Yet many of the ‘art-eests’ featured sound too cool to break a sweat and they don’t bring any zestful energy or devilish charm to the proceedings.

I have not heard that many Serge Gainsbourg songs, so I can’t really say whether some of these covers are true to the originals – but from what I have heard, Mr. Gainsbourg brings an experienced, wicked-humor cynicism to his tunes that most of these covers lack. The overall tone of this album is distanced and antiseptic, with very little emotional depth – both musically and vocally. It seems like many of the singers and bands are only superficially paying tribute to Serge Gainsbourg and his songs.

There are, however, some worthy exceptions. The surprise stand-out track for me is “Bonnie & Clyde” by James Iha (he of Smashing Pumpkins!) and Kazu Makino. This lovely-sad ballad that piqued my interest has James and Kazu trading verses – him dispassionate, yet sturdy-sounding and her hauntingly airy-sounding – then coming together on the floaty chorus lines. It sounds like a softly- glowing, transporting dream, but a dream heavy with portent and regret (regarding the fates of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow)…

Another highlight is “Sorry Angel” by Franz Ferdinand and Jane Birkin, the opener and one of only two up-tempo rockers (at least on the Franz Ferdinand bits) amongst the bunch. Jane Birkin talks in hushed and delicate whispers while Alex Kapranos moans in sympathy in the background on the verses, and then Alex and company burst out on the choruses, all pained, exclaiming vocals, jagged guitars, and pounding drums.

On “L’Hôtel Particulier”, R.E.M. frontman and solo artist Michael Stipe sounds completely unlike himself (ie., nasal, wounded, too earnest) and is all the better for it with his heavier, darker tone on he verses and lighter, tremulous whispers on the choruses, backed by a soft beat and accompanied by strings.

“I’m The Boy” by Trash Palace featuring Marc Almond is another interesting cover, a mid-tempo number reminiscent of the New Wave 80s with dirty synth lines, slightly perverse lyrics, and droll vocal tone from Mr. Almond.

I’m not that impressed with the awkward Jamaican stylings of “Lola Rastaquorere” by Marianne Faithfull and Sly and Robbie. Marianne Faithfull’s talky vocals are icy, arch goodness, but the 1980s- sounding “rasta – rasta” chorus is just too cheesy. Likewise, “Goodbye Emmanuelle” by Tricky, with a smoky trip-hop beat, Megalyn Echikunwoke sing-talking on vocals, and Tricky on backburner and with a ‘boosted’ sound, is okay, until the cheesy chorus of “Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle, goodbyeee…”, which is a dead ringer for some oldie song with the lyrics “Hey, hey, wave goodbye”.

Other songs lacked distinction, even though they are performed by very unique singers. Brian Molko of Placebo gets two songs, but his voice is too thin, plain, and whiny (you know, I mean more than usual! LOL). “Requiem Pour Un Con” has Françoise Hardy sing-talking pluckily on backing vocals, but Brian is in non-urgent, manipulated- vocal, complaining mode against an off-beat, steel drum and xylophone rhythm that doesn’t support him like the blistering, fast-paced guitars in Placebo. “Ballade de Melody Nelson” once again has Brian plain-talking and sound too washed out and restrained – in a way trying to sound older, but failing at it – against backing vocals by Cozette, buzzy synths, and too high-pitched R2-D2-type noises.

Jarvis Cocker and Kid Loco perform on “Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais” (ie., “I Just Came To Tell You That I’m Going”), but it’s not the seething, bilious knock-out it should, or could be. The laid-back reggae and harpsichord (!) vibe just does not sit well with a too-low-key Jarvis sing-talking – plus the track seems to be mixed too low for the vocals. The song should be stark, not fluffed up with muted trumpet and synth strings…

The Rakes cover “Le Poinconneur des Lilas” with their unspectacular indie-rock sound and fast-talking, non emphatic vocals, although there are some nice, convoluted guitar lines somewhere in there.

The final song is a reprise of the opener “Sorry Angel”, with Nina Persson of The Cardigans on vocals, but this time the tune is done in a laid-back style, with beats and bells, and Nina echoey and wanly talking, amid fallen soufflé choruses (that’s not a good thing, even though soufflés are good).

Model, singer, etc… Carla Bruni tackles “Ces Petits Riens” (“Those Little Things”, one of Mr. Gainsbourg’s best-known songs) without any gusto, just up-front, yet non-expressive vocals against plucked guitars.

The rest of the songs are growing on me over time – At first listen I thought the Portishead cover was disappointing, but I’m learning to enjoy the limits of “Un Jour Comme Un Autre – Anna”, with its stiff, yet sinuous (I know that’s a contradiction, but what I mean is, the structure of the song is stiff, but the movement within it is sinuous) ominous, trip-hop beat, accented with Western guitar lines and other noises, as Beth Gibbons apprehensively frets in minor keys, sounding unlike herself (yet again – she seems to always be taking on a character or part, especially on her solo album Out Of Season).

“Je T’aime Moi Non Plus” (a #1 single in the UK in 1969) has Cat Power and Karen Elson (I think she’s mainly known as a model and for marrying Jack White) teaming up and it’s interesting to hear them trading verses, but I wasn’t totally enchanted by it all at first. Karen vocalizes in a breathy, gossamer tone, while Chan Marshall is more hushed and sweet-sad, amid mellow piano/synth ‘water-drop’ notes and transient strings. It’s growing on me…

The slow-tempo “La Chanson de Slogan” (titled “I Call It Art” in English; by whom I don’t know) by The Kills features broken-heart female vocals, hushed male backing vocals, and an indie-rock beat that seems to wind down almost imperceptibly as the tune progresses. The song is fleshed out with various noises that aren’t too pleasant-sounding, but if you like The Kills, you’ll like their cover.

Lastly, and totally out of order, at least for my review (I’ve been jumping around the track listing all this while), is Gonzales, Feist, and Dani. I only recognize Feist, and her carefree vocals are perfectly set against a bouncily loping and sunny groove of a song called “Comme Un Boomerang”. If you want to get your spring (season) on, this is a good song to start it off right.