By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
EVERY CULTURAL MOVEMENT needs its enfant terrible, even a fad as seemingly innocuous and transparent as the semicurrent lounge revival. Given that the return of soothing sounds from a more "innocent" time belies the fact (or perhaps proves it) that we're living in a rather cynical age, who could be a more appropriate anti-hero than a lecherous cabaret singer who shocks his audience like a punk rocker and yawns ennui like a studied slacker. For those wondering where there could possibly be a middle ground between easy listening and hardcore angst, meet Serge Gainsbourg.
While his U.S. obscurity is due no doubt to the fact he sang in French, Gainsbourg enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success and celebrity in his native France from the late '50s until his death of a heart attack in 1991. As a Jew who grew up in Vichy France, Gainsbourg knew the value of personal liberty and boldly flaunted it with his provocative songs. He fancied himself an heir to young and restless French poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud--a Dylan of the Left Bank who played the part of both ugly-duckling sex symbol and intellectual pop star. At the same time, he was also the archetypal sleazy lounge singer, the stereotypical French smoothie, the aging man who beds young beauties (most notably Brigitte Bardot).
Forty years since his first recordings, Gainsbourg's music is gaining newfound recognition due to a recent cover of his "Soixante Neuf Annee Erotique" ("69 Erotic Year") by Luscious Jackson, a tribute album in English translation by Nick Cave sideman Mick Harvey (1995's Intoxicated Man), and a tasty cover of "Bonnie and Clyde" by Luna (with help from Stereolab's Laetia Sadier). But three recent compilations are for most Americans a first chance to hear Gainsbourg's own recordings. Couleur Cafe and Du Jazz Dans Le Ravin cover the late '50s/early '60s period when Gainsbourg's music tended toward jazz, both the light bop/lounge variety (Du Jazz) and Cuban/Caribbean style (Couleur Cafe). By the late '60s, Gainsbourg had shifted to a mod pop style closer to Burt Bacharach or Nancy Sinatra; Comic Strip covers this era.
While each album has its charms--and more than enough Parisian swagger--none are likely to set the modern world on fire. Gainsbourg's music is too derivative of well-worn American styles to assert personality of its own, and his much-admired lyrics are, well, in French. Du Jazz offers little to real jazz fans beyond some nice guitar and horn arrangements and a few memorable melodies ("Black Trombone" stands out). But the record is notable mainly as a document of Gainsbourg's earliest expressions of boredom ("Ce Mortel Ennui") and drunkenness ("Intoxicated Man"). Couleur Cafe is more characteristically French (at least in a colonial sense). Besides the Latin rhythms of "Cha Cha Cha Du Loup" and "Mambo Miam Miam"--and the calypso of "Tatoue Jeremie"--tracks such as the title tune indulge a Haitian meringue pop that's quite exciting.
It's on Comic Strip, however, that Gainsbourg's obsessions with America get distilled into a style that's wholly his own. "Bonnie and Clyde" mixes gangster pop with Morricone vocal effects, while "Comic Strip" blends French cabaret with onomatopoeic Batman noises ("sh-bang, plop, whizz!" chirps Bardot). There's rock arrangements (electric guitars, Hammond organs) and pop touches (muted horns, backing vocals). But Gainsbourg is most Gainsbourgian when he gets down and dirty. Comic Strip's second half contains his signature duets with sultry mistress Jane Birken: "Soixante Neuf" and the orgasmic "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus." The latter was explicit enough to get banned throughout Europe in 1969, though it landed in the American charts (where else? at #69). It's here Gainsbourg thrives: the lover, the pervert, the jaded pop star, the provocateur. With the domestic release of these 30-year-old pop songs, perhaps the U.S. has finally met the perfect dead pop star for the end of the millennium.