Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Je T'Aime - Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg

Je T'Aime
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Fontana  SRF 67610

I attended the Serge Gainsbourg tribute at the Hollywood Bowl a few days ago.  The highlight was the performance of the entire "Histoire de Melody Nelson" album with a choir and an orchestra conducted by Jean-Claude Vannier who collaborated on the original album.  That was spectacular.  Another highlight for me was Beck performing some of Gainsbourg's songs written for France Gall although alas not my two favorites, "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" or "Les Petits ballons."   My other favorite moment consisted of Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl tackling Gainsbourg's most famous song, "Je t' non plus."  Lennon seemed rather sheepish about the whole thing mumbling his part without much enthusiasm but Muhl went all out in a remarkable performance.  The song was considered scandalous when it came out, but many in the crowd at the Bowl giggled all the way through it, Philistines!  Okay, maybe they are right, it is a pretty silly song, but I still find it mesmerizing.  This is the 1970 American version of the French album "Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg" which was released in 1969.  It has an identical track listing but different cover art.  "Je t' non plus" kicks off the album.  Gainsbourg originally recorded it with Brigitte Bardot but she refused to allow it to be released (although she changed her mind many years later and I prefer that version myself.)  If you've never heard this song, it basically consists of Jane Birkin cooing that she loves Serge, breathing heavily and making orgasmic noises while Gainsbourg is saying that he doesn't love her either while commenting on the status of his impending orgasm over some trippy 60s lounge pop dominated by languid organ lines.  It is pretty steamy stuff although anyone who has listened to late 70s disco music might wonder what all the fuss was about since orgasmic cooing is about as ubiquitous as synthesizers with that stuff.  Gainsbourg practically made a career out of shocking people and would go on to make records celebrating sex with a teenager ("Melodie Nelson"), sado-masochism ("Love On the Beat") and finally incest enlisting his own daughter to duet with him on "Lemon Incest."  "Je t' non plus" seems tame in comparison.  The next song on the album is the far more conventional "L'anamour" which Gainsbourg sings by himself.  The title is a made up word that signifies non-love or the absence of love and I believe the song is about fear of commitment.  Birkin sings "Orang-Outang" which I think is the worst song on the album.  She sings the song in an irritating little girl voice and the lyrics are equally childish.  It is about a girl who prefers to sleep with her orangutan doll rather than charming boys driving Ford Mustangs.  It seems innocent enough although with Gainsbourg it is easy to imagine he means something more creepy.  I believe that "Sous le soleil exactement" was written for the 1967 television film, "Anna" starring Anna Karina.  I have that film's soundtrack on CD with Karina singing the song and I prefer it to the version here which is sung by Gainsbourg.  Nonetheless it is a charming song driven by a big thumping bass line like a lot of Gainsbourg's music in this period.  "18-39" is sung by Birkin.  The title refers to the years between the World Wars and it makes references to the dances and music of that era and how the people who danced to it are either dead or well on their way to being dead.  It is a sardonic and gloomy song, but the music is very upbeat, a jazzy music hall-type melody.  Side one concludes with the delightful "69 année érotique."  It is like Gainsbourg's version of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" as he describes crossing between France and England with his English love, Birkin.  It is full of the clever word play and double entendres that Gainsbourg specialized in.  He sings the verses and Birkin croons the chorus.  There is another great bass line driving the song supported by some lovely orchestration.   Side two begins with a song in a similar musical vein, "Jane B."  The lounge pop tune is based on a prelude by Chopin.  Birkin sings the song which begins with a description of her and ends with her lying murdered by the side of a road, a truly weird song.  "Elisa" is pretty weird too, Gainsbourg asks the title character to search for lice in his hair which is probably a pop music first.  He also makes reference to being 40 years old to her 20 which corresponds to the age difference between him and Birkin.  The tune is another jaunty music hall-type song, it sounds utterly old-fashioned and conventional in contrast to the outre lyrics.  "Le canari est sur le balcon" is about a woman committing suicide.  It is a pretty folk rock tune that Birkin sweetly sings as if she doesn't know what she is singing about.  I imagine that that was intentional, Gainsbourg likes going against the grain in his music.  It reminds me of the original version of the next song, "Les sucettes" which was first performed by France Gall when she was a teenager.  The song had been a big hit but also took advantage of Gall's innocence.  She had believed that the song was about lollipops but it is really a thinly veiled description of oral sex.  Gainsbourg's version is sung in a lecherous tone that makes his intent obvious.  There is a nice growling guitar line throughout the song which is the most rock-like song on the album.  The album concludes with the moody, heavily orchestrated "Manon" which is about jealousy and infidelity I believe, Gainsbourg sings of his love/hate relationship with the title character.  It is the style of song that the French refer to as a "chanson" typical of someone like Charles Aznavour or Gainsbourg himself earlier in his career.  This album is ultimately too narcissistic and self-absorbed to be completely satisfying to me.  It reminds me of the records John and Yoko made together around the same time although without the sweetness.  Gainsbourg is too preoccupied with being provocative to be a romantic songwriter.  Even when he is seemingly sincere, I suspect he's up to something.  Musically I find this album very engaging and the lyrical content is original that's for sure.  Gainsbourg was undoubtedly a pop genius but he was also kind of an asshole so his music is interesting but ultimately a bit alienating too.  This record isn't all that easy to find, but the French version was reissued in America on vinyl last year and since it has superior packaging, it makes an excellent alternative.  Recommended for Jean-Luc Godard fans.  

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