Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants (deluxe reissue)

Mick Harvey - Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants

Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants

Thanks to improved international distribution of his work, Sylvie Simmons’ informative 2001 biography, 2006’s Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited tribute LP, Joann Sfar’s eccentric 2010 biopic and copious referencing from contemporary artists, Serge Gainsbourg is no longer such a misunderstood figure outside of his native France or recognised only for 1969’s infamously steamy “Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus.” Before this latter-day fuller embrace from the non-Gallic world, Nick Cave’s onetime chief Bad Seed Mick Harvey was ahead of the curve when he delivered two solo albums in the late-‘90s which sought to transplant select Gainsbourg works into the English-speaking music world.

Whilst greater modern-day exposure to the masterful source material and Gainsbourg’s charismatic tones may have slightly dimmed their attraction, it’s arguable that without Harvey’s Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants – newly-reissued as a double-seta porthole into the Gainsbourg universe may not have opened-up to many of us in quite the same positive way.  Moreover, for non-French speakers and language students alike these covers albums reveal hidden dimensions inside Gainsbourg’s lyrical lexicon, even if some artistic license was applied by Harvey and his co-translators to avoid over-literal interpretations that would have meant some word couplings sticking out like swollen body parts.

1995’s Intoxicated Man is perhaps the most authentic of the two conversion collections; not straying too far from the original arrangements, aside from a few notable exceptions.  With long-time collaborator Anita Lane alluringly assuming the vocal roles of Bridget Bardot and Jane Birkin, the input of adaptable guest players and Harvey’s own multi-instrumentalist skills stretched to the max, the LP tackles a good range of Gainsbourg’s now better known works as well as interspersing some of his lesser-heard pieces.  Hence Harvey tackles several strands of Gainsbourg’s extensive career; such as the early-‘60s twisted jazz and tropical percussion phases with rhythmical flair (“Intoxicated Man” and “New York USA”), the late-‘60s pop-art purple patch with lustrous aplomb (“Ford Mustang,” “Initials B.B.” and “Bonnie & Clyde”) and the more weathered early-‘70s material with genuine pathos (“I Have Come To Tell You I’m Going”).  Whilst Harvey doesn’t attempt push his dry antipodean pipes beyond their natural range – which does mean some of the weaker tracks like “Sex Shop” and “Jazz In The Ravine” become a little too arid and meandering – Lane’s lead vocal turns on the lusty shimmering Bardot anthem “Harley Davidson” and a radically elegant reworking of “Overseas Telegram” are outstanding.

In contrast to its predecessor, 1997’s Pink Elephants features Harvey taking a far more minimalistic and solitary approach, for most of the first eleven tracks that is.  Relying predominantly on stripped-down keyboard and drum-led configurations as well as a less cloaked vocal delivery, the adaptations are both more inventive and intimate than on Intoxicated Man, bringing the most romantic and darkest elements of the Gainsbourg songbook to the fore.  Thus, Harvey truly excels with the desolately beatific “Black Seaweed,” the spooky organ swirling of “Scenic Railway,” the dark funky “Requiem…,” the menacing “To All The Lucky Kids” and the brilliantly bitter “Manon.”  There’s still room left for Gainsbourg’s lacerating humour however, which Harvey brilliant brings vividly to life on “The Ticket Puncher Of Lilas” – which is a must-hear for anyone who has ever endured a mind-numbingly repetitive job.

After the eleven main songs of Pink Elephants comes another suite of Serge covers, originally spread across Harvey and Lane singles/EPs released in 1995 and 1996.  Collectively, they act as reprise for the fuller Intoxicated Man sound (with Lane sharing vocal duties again), with highlights including a carnivalesque “Torrey Canyon,” a soaring “Who Is ‘In’ Who Is ‘Out’” and a wistful take on “The Ballad Of Melody Nelson.”  Nick Cave fans will also be tickled with his guest vocals next to Lane for a sultry but less randy version of “Je T’Aime…”  Finally, closing the book on this welcome reissue are two previously unreleased outtakes – an ugly deconstructed “Dr Jekyll” and a string-soaked “Run From Happiness” – which were probably left off originally for not quite fitting the seamless sequencing of the two albums but are good to have here now for added value and historical context.

Across its 34 gathered together tracks this twofer repackaging does a simple but effective job of underscoring Mick Harvey’s laudable sense of public service in extending the global reach of Serge Gainsbourg’s recorded legacy and his own remarkable skills as an studio craftsman. All told, this is an essential purchase for both Gainsbourg obsessives and followers of The Bad Seeds family tree.

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