World renowned actress, activist, muse to one of France's most legendary songwriters and still popular recording star, Jane Birkin certainly has worn many titles. I think often though her solo recording career gets short changed a bit so I thought I would present a brief guide to her albums and some personal thoughts on each. As I have been compiling this list I was struck by the fact that I probably listen to these records even more than Gainsbourg's work as a whole, a fact which really blew me away and is a testimony to how much I love these lps.
Jane's first lp was released in 1969 as a duets album with Serge Gainsbourg. With her name boldly on top and and an endearing close up gracing the cover, the album was clearly designed to sell Jane as a recording star after the success of the J'E'TAIME MON NON PLUS single.
Like the majority of her early albums, the lp was composed, arranged and produced by Gainsbourg. The album is a real jewel and includes such legendary tracks as 69 ANNEE EROTIQUE and MANON plus some of the most whacked out orchestration in Gainsbourg's catalogue. The album does a splendid job of mixing Serge and Jane's vocals together and provides a perfect introduction to Jane's sometimes disarming and always charming vocal styling.
It would be a full four years before Jane would release another solo album although a handful of singles and her work on the stunning MELODY NELSON project would keep her well on the musical landscape of the early seventies. 1973's DI DOO DAH might be the ideal introduction to the world of Jane Birkin's recordings if just for the inclusion of the title track, LA DECADANSE and MON AMOUR BAISER alone. Featuring an incredibly sexy cover shot, Jane's second album is a much more relaxed sounding album than her first one. With Gainsbourg again providing the songs and the amazing Jean-Claude Vannier coming on board with the seductive arrangements, Jane really comes into her own here as a solo artist. This album also includes some great guitar work and is on the whole one of the great slow burn French funk albums from the early seventies.
DI DOO DAH sold well and Jane was by 1975's LOLITA GO HOME one of the biggest recoding and film stars in France. LOLITA GO HOME is possibly my favorite album by her and at least the most underrated. Often overlooked because it features songs other than Serge's, Jane's work on this album is really splendid. It is hard to take songs as well known as WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE, LOVE FOR SALE, WHERE OR WHEN and THERE'S A SMALL HOTEL and make them your own but Jane, with her off kilter vocals, does just that. Her version of LOVE FOR SELL is one of the sexiest
and most moving performances I have ever heard, Jane really becomes the life and world weary narrator in this track and it is one of her definitive performances. JP Sabar steps in with the arrangements here and the whole album has a slightly hungover dazed feel to it, like the morning after a night of heavy and almost damaging lovemaking. Gainsbourg provides some of his most subversive lyrics here with JUST ME AND YOU'S line, of "fuck the rest of the world" pre-dating Johnny Rotten's vinyl debut by nearly two years.
Jane's final album of the seventies is one of her most emotional works as it was recorded in the period that her relationship with Serge was going sour. 1978's EX-FAN DES SIXTIES is a strange but compelling record. The title track alone, recorded shortly after Elvis died, focuses on the loss of not only various rock stars from but the loss of the idealism that the sixties had come to represent. Awashed with an almost childlike sounding arrangement, Jane's haunting vocal places this track center among her very best works. Gainsbourg contributed all of the songs on this album and judging from tracks such as ROCKING CHAIR, NICOTINE and especially APOCALYPSTICK, he is beginning to sound like a man tragically out of time.
It would be five years before Jane would return to a recording studio to record a full album but 1983's BABY ALONE IN BABYLON was worth the wait. Jane was thirty-seven when she came through with this very adult and and at times very lonely sounding record. The first album written after their divorce, Gainsbourg presented Jane with some of the most heartbreaking songs of isolation that he had ever written including the stunning OVERSEAS TELEGRAM, a track that would prove a highlight to the Mick Harvey and Anita Lane Gainsbourg tribute album a decade later. BABY LOU and the haunting NORMA JEAN BAKER provide two other major highlights. Even though the album is a bit bogged down in 1980's production, the songs and Jane's reading of them make it a stunning achievement.
1987 would prove a banner year for Jane's musical career with the release of her well regarded LOST SONG album and especially for the her first live album AU BATACLAN. I must admit that LOST SONG is an album by Jane that I have listened to the least so I will not offer any real thoughts on it here except to say that it is a solid record that for some reason I just haven't continually revisited like the rest. I think my main problem with it is the production that I think really bogs it down. Charlotte Gainsbourg's first album from this period also suffers a bit from this. The live lp though is a stunner. It works as not only a grand souvenir from her first concert but also as a splendid greatest hits record. One of my favorite things about this record is how receptive the audience is to seeing Jane live and how obviously appreciative she is. Highlights include a gloriously dead-pan LOVE FOR SALE and an incredibly tender reading of YESTERDAY, YES A DAY from Gainsbourg's great MADAME CLAUDE soundtrack. All in all, Jane Birkin's AU BATACLAN LIVE is one of the best concert album's from the eighties.
The nineties brought the tragic death of Serge Gainsbourg and saw Jane's work as an actress becoming more and more respected with acclaimed performances for directors like Jacques Rivette. Her recording career was not completely put on hold though and the albums AMOURS DES FEINTES from 1990, VERSIONS JANE from 1996 and A LA LEGERE from 99 are all nicely put together collections, but they are probably her least essential works. A LA LEGERE would find her seemingly escaping Serge Gainsbourg's shadow completely and the arrangements of Philippe Lerichomme are very nice but all in all these would be the three albums to not start your Jane Birkin collection with. I will admit though, that like LOST SONG, I haven't given these records as many spins as I should and perhaps at a later date I will return with more thoughts on them.
The nineties would also find Jane releasing two fine double set live albums as well as big selling best of collection that would find her singing a duet with none other than the beautiful Brett Anderson from the always astonishing SUEDE. The Brett Anderson duet was an incredibly important one, it would set in motion Jane's musical comeback and really show that modern French music was no longer something to snicker at, it had in fact been incredibly influential to a varied number of singers and songwriters from all over the world.
2002 would find Jane releasing one of her most popular collections and cementing her position as a vital musical force in France. ARABESQUE is a striking collection of re-recorded Gainsbourg tracks in an, as you might have gathered, Arabic mode. This innovative collection with it's positively tripped out middle eastern arrangements and Jane at her strongest vocally, it is a major success at giving new life to some of Gainsbourg's best songs. The album would be followed by a live dvd and documentary that would show a fully rejuvenated Birkin really firing on all cylinders. It is an undeniably exciting and vital record in her catalogue.
Even better is 2004's RENDEZ-VOUS, possibly the greatest album Jane has ever made and proof positive that her and Serge were among the most influential artists of the sixties and seventies. RENDEZ-VOUS is a duet album, and a great one at that, featuring a stunning set of artists singing and writing for Jane such as Feist, Brian Molko, Beth Gibbons, Francoise Hardy and most notably Bryan Ferry. The overwhelmingly talented Leslie Feist delivers A SIMPLE STORY and her and Jane are tremendous together, giving the song a sense of playfulness and heavy drama at the same time. The Hardy duet is very nice as is the great opening, JE M'APPELLE JANE but the real treasure on the album is the duet with Jane and Ferry on Roxy Music's still jaw dropping IN EVERY DREAMHOME A HEARTACHE. One of the great tracks of the seventies and one of Ferry's most demanding songs, Jane and Bryan transform it into a sinister electronic landslide of whispered vocals and seductive posturing. It is an audacious moment that brings Birkin back to Britain and it is an essential little companion to Roxy's monumental original.
Last year's FICTIONS continues Jane's comeback and finds her working heavily with The Smith's guitar great, Johnny Marr as well as Portishead's Beth Gibbons and The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon. To deliver an album this entrancing and alive sounding at the age of 61 is quite a feat but Jane Birkin has always managed to do the seemingly impossible. If FICTIONS is any indication then the remarkable recording career of Jane Birkin is no where near over.
This has just been my little introduction to Jane's solo albums. I will most likely be looking my favorites, DI DOO DAH, LOLITA GO HOME and RENDEZ-VOUS, at a later date. Hopefully for someone who might be interested in getting some of Jane's music this might serve as a nice starting point. There are quite a few solid best of collections out but I think her music is best heard on the original albums, most of them have been lovingly remastered in the past few years and are sounding better than ever. A good place to track them down is Chicago's great Dusty Groove which has an incredible online store and of course Amazon carries most of them also.