Monday, May 01, 2006

On Covering Gainsbourg

Creativity is a good thing. No, strike that, it's a great thing. But there's a lot to be said for rules. Granted, the very word makes many uncomfortable as we all have to live with them and most of us would rather make up our own--or do without altogether--but they're necessary, dammit. Sure, too many can stifle creativity, but too few can lead to blunders like the following...


So I just heard the new Cat Power/Karen Elson cover of "Je t' non plus." It comes from the album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, which includes Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Michael Stipe, Tricky, and the Kills. I've gotta weigh in. Because I love it? No. Because I hate it? No. Because I both love and hate it. On the one hand, it takes an admirable risk. On the other, it takes an unforgivable one. Written by Serge Gainsbourg, the song was originally sung as a duet between France's favorite hood-eyed lothario and his then-lover/soon-to-be-pregnant-wife, Jane Birkin [above right], the British actress/model/Hermès bag namesake with the era-defining sheet of straight hair.

"Je t'aime" was, naturally, released in 1969, and instantly became Gainsbourg's biggest hit. (That same year, he released "Soixante Neuf Année Erotique," i.e. "69 Erotic Year.") Many albums, soundtracks, and movies later, it remains his best known, best loved creation. It's pretty, poppy, and unabashedly sexy. Ridiculously so, as Birkin doesn't sing her lines as much as sigh and moan her way through them. And yet it's tasteful in a way the equally infamous Giorgo Moroder/Donna Summer aural orgasm, "Love to Love You Baby" (1975), is not. I love "Love," by the way, but I wouldn't use the word "subtle" to describe it.

As with Gainsbourg in the '60s, Cat Power (Chan Marshall, below with the Birkin bangs) in the '00s is a known quantity, so I'll leave her be, but what of Elson? Allow me to review her history before taking a look at this track, the only one of hers I've heard. First of all, Elson is, like Birkin, a (British) model. And not just any model, but a top model. Note that I didn't use the word "super." Elson isn't a personality or a corporate shill. She's "simply" a model, who has worked extensively for Vogue (which I read religiously). She's a tall thin twentysomething with delicate features, red hair, and white skin. Guess who she married last year? Why, Jack White of the White Stripes. As with Birkin, she proceeded to have a child with her new hubbie (the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg was l'enfant numéro un to result from the Gainsbourg/Birkin union).

Since she first materialized in magazines, Elson has been one of my favorite models. Simply put, she's striking, yet "relatable." Victoria's Secret cover girl Gisele Bundchen may be the most famous model in the world, and she's definitely beautiful, but she isn't relatable. Most women will never look anything like her, so why would we compare ourselves? (Even doe-eyed Daria Werbowy, below left, is more relatable.) Aside from the fact that Elson possesses a certain joie d'vivre, she's shockingly plain without makeup. She may not be stunning, but she's certainly unique. Of course, her svelte figure is rather unatainable for the average woman, but her adaptable face is her fortune.

Once I read that Elson was giving up modeling to sing--cutting back, at any rate--I became concerned. Other models, like Naomi Campbell, have tried the music thing. Most have failed. With the rise of MTV in the 1980s, it was predicted that only the prettiest would prevail. For a short while, that prediction seemed to come true, but most of the pretty faces turned out to have the shortest careers (Sebastian Bach, anyone?). We all age, after all, and if you don't have much talent in the first place... But more than that, the public tends to be particularly hard on models: "What makes them think they can sing, act, do anything other than...pose?"

If a model also happens to be married to a famous musician, like Jack White, the public, critics--everyone with access to a computer, a typewriter, a pen, a stick--is even more likely to give her a hard time. The assumption is that she's just riding on his coattails, i.e. working with his songs, his players, his producers, etc. If the end result is listenable, she's still likely to be wrung through the ringer for those very reasons. The assumption is that she never could have pulled off the feat on her own. Well, maybe she couldn't have, but in the end, the music should matter more than the method. Plenty of successful "musician-musicians" got where they are by riding on someone's coattails.

Well, I have no idea how Elson ended up working with Marshall on this Gainsbourg cover, but I have to admit that the very idea made me smile. As with the original song, we've got a musician trading verses with a model (ex- or otherwise). We've also got two women. Now this is the part that I would consider an "admirable risk." Not necessarily an original one, but a risk nonetheless.

Alas, this duet just isn't sexy. Is that why I think it's an unforgivable risk? No, but if someone else should make that argument, I'll be happy to back 'em up. Gainsbourg's ouvre, as a whole, represents some pretty sexed-up stuff. If you're gonna cover it--any of it--you should definitely make it sexy. Honor "Un Con" by adding some of your own sexiness, however you choose to define it. No, what's unforgivable is that, throughout the album (which I haven't yet heard in its entirety), Gainsbourg's original French lyrics have been translated into English. What the fuck were they thinking?

I'm not a Francophile, but nor am I a Francophobe. (I am an Anglophile, but that's neither here nor there. Plus, I'm part-British--why shouldn't I be?) But that has no bearing on my thoughts about Gainsbourg as a songwriter. When he wrote his songs, he wasn't just thinking about the words, i.e. what he was trying to say, but how they would sound together and what sorts of puns, double entendres, and such he could create from his choices. Consequently, his are some of the wittiest, most euphonious lyrics ever written. Also, the dirtiest!

Granted, my knowledge of French is limited, but I know what sounds good. I realize that reads a lot like, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." I'll stand by it. In regards to Gainsbourg, at any rate. "Je t' non plus" translates to "I love neither." (Or "neither do I.") In French, the two phrases are in opposition, but sound great together--"You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!" In English, the two phrases are in opposition, and sound like it--"You got your ketchup in my chocolate!" (As it were.) Big, big mistake.

In 1995, when Luna [above right] and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier covered Gainsbourg's 1968 duet, "Bonnie and Clyde," this time with pre-Birkin lover/musical protégé Brigitte Bardot [below left], they sang in the original language. Frankly, Sadier and Dean Wareham have more conventional, less distinctive voices. Nobody does that alcohol-meets-unfiltered-nicotine talk-sing thing quite like Gainsbourg, with the possible exception of Lee Hazlewood. It's pretty much a note-by-note rendition, but it sounds good. Creative? Not really. If anything, they could've taken a few chances, broken a few "rules"--sped it up, slowed it down--tried something that hadn't already been done. But the bottom line is that it works (and the "Bonnie Parker" version on the "Bonnie and Clyde" EP does change things up a bit). But Wareham and Sadier follow the cardinal rule when it comes to covering Gainsbourg: They don't translate the lyrics into English (even though Luna's New Zealand-born Wareham is a native English speaker).

With few exceptions, I think that's how it should be done. So far, I've only heard one deviation from "the rule" that doesn't rankle my nerves, and I've written about it in a previous post: Seu Jorge's Portuguese cover of "Chatterton." Heck, Gisele's countryman doesn't just translate the lyrics, he changes a few of the words. As a Gainsbourg purist, I should be offended, but I'm not. Why? Because although I love our crazy, patchwork-quilt of a language, Portuguese shares many of the same qualities that make sung French sound so beautiful (like fewer of our harsh-sounding consonants). Jorge really sells the song. He honors it and makes it his own at the same time. Sure, the original's better, but this is one rule-breaking Gainsbourg cover done right.

Despite the innate excellence of the song selection, despite the fact that Marshall and Elson have nice voices (though there should be more contrast between them), despite the pleasant arrangement, "I love neither" is Gainsbourg done wrong. My solution? Pretend that this cover does not exist. For my money, it doesn't take anything away from the excellence of Cat Power's The Greatest. In fact, it has nothing to do with the album, one of her best. Also, it may not have anything to do with the solo career Elson is preparing to launch. Or it may have everything to do with it. In any case, I sincerely hope Elson's debut will be judged on its own merits, even if folks like Marshall, White, and the Raconteurs (White's new band) are all over it. And as a corrective, I offer the following: Get two men--one "manly," one not--to sing the song, say, Mark Lanegan and Antony. But most of all: In French!

Note: Part two in "On Covering Gainsbourg." Images from Amazon, the AMG (Stefano Giovannini credited for Cat Power, Jill Greenberg for Luna), Google, Saigon Net, and ...Simply Daria (David Ferrua). Incidentally, this piece was already too long without mentioning model Rosie Vela. Even with the help of Mssrs. Becker and Fagen (Steely Dan), her music career was a bust.

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