Sunday, July 02, 2006

On Covering Gainsbourg:
Part IV

Intoxicated Man (1995, Mute)
Pink Elephants (1997, Mute)

The idea to make this record began from a combination of personal curiosity about Gainsbourg's material (particularly his lyrics) and a growing bewilderment that his work is virtually unknown outside French speaking countries.
-- Mick Harvey (from the liner notes to the first album)

The songs were written by Serge Gainsbourg. All 32--16 per record--have been translated into English. Mick Harvey (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) performs them with Anita Lane (Jane Birkin to his Gainsbourg), Warren Ellis (the Dirty Three, The Proposition), and other Australian notables. I have to admit he has the voice for it, i.e. he isn't a great singer, but he's good and his voice is deep like Gainsbourg's. I honestly think a man who sings too well wouldn't be able to do these songs justice. A smooth crooner like Sufjan Stevens, for instance, just wouldn't work.

I've written previously that I prefer to hear Gainsbourg covered in French. His songs were written that way, make the most sense that way--sound better that way. Well, Harvey gets a free pass. His voice is mixed low enough and the instrumental backing is loud enough that the English is never obvious or overbearing. Yet you can still hear the lyrics (for better or for worse, "con" becomes "cunt"). I think he got the balance right. The vocals on Verve's recent compilation Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, pleasant as they are, are mixed too high. Their Englishness can be glaring.

As for the translations, allow me to let Harvey explain how he handled the issue:

Translating a great writer is like walking through a minefield and I set myself the difficult task of attempting to keep the places of rhyming, metre and meaning accurate to the originals. One or more of these elements is usually dispensed with in translating poetry and lyrics, but I did not want to iron out any of Gainsbourg's obtuse angles on things or lose any of his especially perverse and peculiar touches. Some word plays and turns of phrase were inevitably lost. For this I make no apology.

From an interview with Mute Records, he adds:

[T]here were some songs I didn't do, because I just couldn't really approach the lyrics...especially things that were loads of alliterations and stuff like that. It just wasn't really feasible.

For the most part it works, although I prefer the Laetitia Sadier-Dean Wareham "Bonnie and Clyde." Yes, this is partly because they sing it in French (Sadier's native language), but also because their voices work better together. Lane, who has a "thinner" voice, isn't quite up to the task. That said, I prefer Harvey's version of "Chatterton" to Seu Jorge's. To his credit, Jorge does a better job at transforming the song into something new. He starts by translating the lyrics into Portuguese and changing a few of the names, but the song's forward momentum ends up getting lost. Harvey maintains the the song's "edge." Plus, the thing just swings.

A few more observations. These aren't greatest hits compilations (I didn't recognize all the songs). If they were, Harvey would have included "Je t' non plus" on the first album rather than the second. Incidentally, it's titled "I love you (me either)" on Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited and "I love you...nor do I" on Pink Elephants (seems to me the ellipses are rather essential). On said album, it's performed by Nick Cave and then-girlfriend Lane.

For those who haven't heard these discs, The Intoxicated Man probably seems like the one to get (if you're gonna get one). But if that's the case, I suggest picking up both. They were recorded around the same time and are pretty equal in terms of quality; the first makes for a more consistent listen, although Pink Elephants has the best song: "Anthracite," with Intoxicated Man's "Chatterton" a close second.

If I were to nitpick, I'd say the biggest problem with these covers isn't that they aren't in French, but that they're less exciting than the originals. Then again, isn't that inevitable with a project of this kind? It's not that Harvey has cleaned things up too much, but that he's not as much of a dirty old man. A certain amount of sleaze was, unavoidably, lost in translation. Otherwise, I don't think Harvey and his collaborators could've done a better job at reinventing Gainsbourg for the English-speaking world.

(I) obviously worked with people... worked with translators and stuff who could tell me all the different sort of weird literary references and strange things that are running through all this. I never would have got to most of it by myself with a dictionary.
-- Mick Harvey (from the Mute interview)

Endnote: This is actually part five in a series (but if I change the title, I render the URL obsolete). For more info on Mick Harvey, please see his website. Images from Mute Records, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds website, and Google. Thanks to Steven for loaning me these CDs. At the same time, he loaned me Jane Birkin's Di Dooh Dah (1973). All songs were written by Gainsbourg with arrangements by Jean-Claude Vannier. Lately, I've been working on an article about Harvey's countryman, Ed Kuepper, who has a song called "La Di Doh." Somehow I don't see Kuepper and Birkin getting together anytime soon--but it would be cool if they did! As for Lane, she issued a follow-up to 1993's Dirty Pearl five years ago, Sex O'Clock [ack], to which Harvey contributes.

No comments: