Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dans les caboulots

Original Facebook post here.

Today's formative-album replay: Serge Gainsbourg, La Javanaise, Vol 2, 1961-63. I remember well the first time I heard his name and his pungent, plangent chansons. Twenty years ago the great opera/cabaret diva Stephanie Vlahos, whose Weill show at Largo and roles at L.A. Opera I had enjoyed, was telling me about her new all-French program, which would include several songs by composers I'd heard of (Poulenc, Brel) as well as someone named Gainsbourg. Though the name was entirely new to me, I nodded along as if I knew exactly who she meant, all the while secretly thinking of "The Blue Boy."

In those pre-Internet days, I would have to actually to go to a record store to find out more about an artist I hadn't heard of. As it happened, I was about to be taking my one and only trip to Paris, so I was able to pick up this album--a collection of early efforts in a career that would span decades--in cassette form at a store there. I started spinning it constantly on my Walkman, in alternation with some Ravel, and was cast under the fitful spell of this deeply odd, occasionally brilliant songsmith. The first tune, "Le chanson de Prevert," had layers of strummy acoustic guitars and a lachrymose, vaguely gypsy minor-key harmony, and I immediately heard him as a sort of French Leonard Cohen. But within a few tracks, he had veered alternately into prim chamber music, bachelor-pad jazz, saxy rockabilly, and faux-Andean flute folk, all the while singing/chanting in a voice that could be round and ripe or breathy, insinuating. He was seldom as passionate as Brel, but he sounded less disengaged and wizened than Cohen. In fact, he most often sounded ironic and a little high, as if to sing were an absurdity, best approached under the influence.

It was Gallic ennui frozen into an attitude, in other words. Revisited all these years later, this music strikes me as bewitching at best, breezily cheesy at worst. There's a matter-of-fact melancholy in that bassoon of a voice, and even in his whimsy--and there is plenty of it, more than is really necessary--it has a droopy gravity. It's essentially frowny music. What I'd really love is to hear again Vlahos' soaring renditions of "Les amours perdues" and "En realisant ta lettre," which I heard in her show at Atlas Bar & Grill when I returned from France, at last properly prepared to revere this mystery man.

Years later I got my band Millhouse to make one of these tunes a staple of our sets. Apologies for my clueless pronunciation: http://robkendt.com/audio/12%20Les%20Oubliettes.mp3

Stephanie Vlahos Rob! I'm not sure i deserve such encomiums but sharing Gainsbourg is always a great pleasure. He was endlessly fascinating in all regards. Les Amours Perdues...sheer perfection. I'm not sure my particular take on his songs ever did him justice but I loved trying. That being said, revisiting the stage might be possible
Rob Weinert-Kendt Stephanie, I preferred your versions in many cases, much as I do Jennifer Warnes' renditions of Leonard Cohen's songs, for instance. I think I have a tape of you doing "Accordeon" with Nick Ariondo...

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