Music: Le Provocateur
Free Press Music Columnist
It’s easy to dismiss the late French singer/songwriter/artist Serge Gainsbourg as an instigator, an attention hound always too willing to sacrifice good taste for notoriety. And there’s some truth in that assessment.
The man who once recorded a song called “Lemon Incest” with his then 12-year-old daughter was quite ready to doff civilized standards of behavior when the whim struck. But Gainsbourg’s songs were always too literate, too complex and too darned catchy to easily forget. When he died in 1991, he left behind a powerful and delicious body of work that will likely see renewed interest now that British label Ace Records has released “Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg,” a wide-ranging collection of Gainsbourg’s collaborations with a variety of female singers.
In the English-speaking world, Gainsbourg is probably best remembered for his 1969 hit with actress Jane Birkin, “Je t’aime … moi non plus.” That song’s sweet and erotic impact took it to the top of the British charts and placed it solidly in the American Hot 100. But it was only one of dozens of such songs Gainsbourg committed to vinyl with a host of talented women — women who, like Birkin, frequently enjoyed with Gainsbourg something more than a professional relationship.
The man who directed four motion pictures (and appeared as an actor in at least six) was drawn over and over to actresses, and several of his pop collaborations were with women better known for their work on the big screen than behind the mic. Among the cinema stars Gainsbourg recorded with were the aforementioned Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Greco, Catherine Deneuve, and his daughter with Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has become a popular and critically acclaimed actress, appearing in several of Lars von Trier’s films (including the forthcoming, already controversial “Nymphomaniac”). And in addition to great French stars like those women, Gainsbourg also recorded with singers from other countries, including Marianne Faithfull and Nana Mouskouri.
Ace’s new collection is a great sampler of that work (although it deliberately omits “Je T’aime …” in either the hit version with Birkin or the earlier rendition he recorded with Brigitte Bardot in 1967). The songs on the record span from a 1961 recording with Vicky Autier to a version of “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” which American singer April March cut two years after Gainsbourg’s death. (March also recorded the song with the lyrics translated into English as “Chick Habit,” and it played during the end credits of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” in 2007.)
“Vamps et Vampire” is available for less than $20 online and serves as a great introduction to the work of a man whose life and art was an exquisite and sometimes maddening blend of the sacred and the profane.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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