Friday, December 22, 2006

The Good, Bad and Ugly Truth About Tribute Records

1995 saw the release of Mick Harvey's remarkable Intoxicated Man, a collection of English language covers of the songs of Serge Gainsbourg. The collection was an exciting one, it was difficult to get the original recordings of Gainsbourg in the States at the time and Harvey's versions were the first time I had heard many of these songs.
Mick Harvey was already an underground legend by the mid 90's due to his co-founding of both The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds with Nick Cave. Assisting him on Intoxicated Man was Cave's former muse Anita Lane.
Intoxicated Man is a rare breed of tribute album, that being a genuine one. Harvey and Lane's love and respect for Gainsbourg's work shines through. Harvey's English lyrics are the make or break point and he does a splendid job of carrying over the bite and humor from Gainsbourg's originals.
Highlights are many, from the explosive opening of 69 Erotic Year to the closing Initials B.B. with an incredible string arrangement from Bertrand Burgalat matching Serge's iconic original.
Anita Lane is in splendid from here having the near impossible task of channeling the spirits of Bardot, Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the other unmatchable French Chanteuses who had helped make these songs legends.
Harvey would follow up Intoxicated Man with another collection of Gainsbourg's songs two years later, this one entitled Pink Elephants. This one suffered by comparison, mostly due to the tackling of tracks off Gainsbourg's masterpiece Melody Nelson. It still does contain the amazing cover of Je T'aime with Anita and Nick Cave that had originally appeared on her The World's A Girl single.
Minor flaws aside the Mick Harvey tributes were triumphs, they were cut before it was trendy for every young musician to drop Gainsbourg's name. They are albums cut by fans for true fans.
Fast forward to just a bit earlier this year to the major label Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited. This high profiled release promised to bring Serge's work to a larger English language audience with an arsenal of today's top players on the music scene. I suppose as tribute albums go it's a pretty good one with more hits than misses but it still suffers from the thought that most tribute albums do, that many of the people on it are advancing their own careers rather than paying actual tribute.
Still when it's good it's pretty great and the highlights are easy to pick out. Portishead's Requiem For Anna is stunning and serves great notice for their upcoming third album. Franz Ferdinand's storming version Sorry Angel is well served by Jane Birkin's appearance but their performance loses pretty much all of the irony of the original. Jarvis Cocker and Cat Power turn in good if not totally memorable performances of two of Serge's most iconic cuts. Tricky's version of Goodbye Emmanuelle mostly succeeds because of the jaw dropping translation, "Star spangled Emmanuelle plays lip service to Uncle Samuel, Emmanuelle can eat you up quicker than you can say cannibal".
The album's worst moments come every third or forth song. Michael Stipe's massacre of L'Hotel Particulier should have been thrown out with the garbage, it's painful to listen to and Stipe seems the most guilty here of just trying to advance his own dead in the water career. The Faultline, Trash Palace and Rakes performances are all particularly uninspired. Placebo is in way over their head with a limp version of Ballad Of Melody Nelson.
The album picks up towards the end with New York art-rockers The Kills turning in a biting I Call It Art and the album closes with a triumphant version of Those Little Things by the talented Carla Bruni. It's a heartfelt totally committed performance featuring just Carla's voice and lightly strummed guitar, it's the one performance on the album that really channels the spirit of Gainsbourg.
Two bonus tracks are included on the US version, one useless and one pretty good. James Iha trips over Bonnie and Clyde but The Cardigans Nina Persson closes with a nice version of Sorry Angel.
The Portishead and Carla Bruni tracks are the only two on Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited that match Mick Harvey's tributes ten years ago. Still it is nice to have Gainsbourg's name more and more recognized outside of France. The Mick Harvey albums are still in print and are essential for any fan of Serge Gainsbourg or French music, buy Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisted if just out of love for Serge and his remarkable legacy.

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