Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Des ailes en chandail, Des algues en paille

Today’s formative-album replay: Juliette Gréco. Much of this record makes me want to lie down, perhaps because a good amount of it sounds like it was sung from a reclining position, the singer’s head lifted just enough to emit sound, like an opium addict from her couch. Even when the orchestra is trotting jauntily along, Juliette Gréco--the thinking man’s Piaf--often sounds like she either can’t be bothered to sing at all, or is simply too wrecked by emotion to manage more than a sob or a moan. Lachrymose is not the the only shade she manages, of course: There is also the shy, warm coquette of “Deshabillez Moi,” the dashing bon vivant of “Jolie Mome,” and various modes of ageless Parisian mascot: party girl (“La Fete aux Copains”), wry sphinx (“Paname”), and jovial tourguide (“Paris Canaille,” “Accordeon”).

But the heart of this hits collection (yet another pivotal purchase inspired by my devotion to Stephanie Vlahos’s peerless French cabaret act) beats in Gréco’s world-weary, half-swallowed, spoke-sung lyrics, a sophisticated Gallic cousin to the artless croak of Dietrich. In songs like the heartbroken “Chanson de vieux amants,” the warily vulnerable “Il N’y a Plus D’apres,” the ruminative lover’s farewell “Si Tu T’Imagines,” or the emotionally caved-in “Les Enfants Qui S'Aiment,” she pulls off the actor’s trick of heightening the drama by underplaying it. When she runs the manic-depressive gamut in a self-consciously zero-to-60 number like “Je Hais Les Dimanches,” it comes off as a bit of a gimmick, while the flickering alternation of past/present, sweet/sour, and major/minor conjured by a reverie like “C’Etait Bien,” on the other hand, is all the richer for seeming tossed off.

The absolute molten core of the album’s Proustian magic is the snow-globe carousel waltz of “Coin de Rue,” which feels somehow neither spoken nor sung but rendered as a limpid, candlelit incantation (it doesn’t hurt that its distinctive harmonic ambivalence--it’s in a major key but sounds graver than many a song in a minor key--is singularly French). If many of these songs have the sound of a heart sinking, “Coin de Rue” is the sound of a bright, shiny little memory bobbing down a dark, eddying stream to sweet oblivion. That’s a restorative best taken lying down.

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