Wainwright can be proud of this performance, but is more powerful when being herself.
Jude Rogers 2009-11-18
Nearly 50 years after her early death, the belly-deep, raspy bellow of Édith Piaf has swooped and soared through the 21st century. Marion Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance as Piaf in La Vie En Rose has deepened her mythology, while three recent box sets have broadened her legacy. Now Martha Wainwright's album of Piaf obscurities remind us how very few modern vocalists sing so boldly and brazenly – a style Wainwright has loved since she was a child, growing up in French-Canadian Quebec.
On paper, Wainwright is perfect for this project. Ever since her startling eponymous debut in 2006, Wainwright has been a showy performer – her first single a rant to her father called Bloody Mother F****** A******, and her second album telling us her "heart was made for bleeding all over you". Nevertheless, Wainwright's soft, smoky tones can also handle tenderness and vulnerability gorgeously, so apart from Amy Winehouse – a woman who has followed the Piaf self-destruction programme too closely – no one could be better placed deliver these chansons, which couple feistiness and frailty movingly.
But as this album plays, something gets unstuck. Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris is undoubtedly an impressive achievement – producer Hal Willner putting together an authentic orchestra of strings, pianos and accordions, while Wainwright blusters and breezes beautifully over the top – but it sounds strangely sanitised. This has little to do with the song choices, which include little-known tracks like Marie Trottoir, a song about the unseemly life of a streetwalker, and Une Enfant, written by Charles Aznavour, about a romantic teenager who ends up dead. It has everything to do with the syrupy arrangements, and a hunch that Wainwright is offering us some brilliant theatre, rather than inhabiting these emotions directly. There is also no menace here – a quality that was always present in Piaf's rough alto – and misty melisma replaces it.
The album should be welcomed for some things, however: bringing the terrifying stomp of Les Grognards (The Old Soldiers) back into currency, and reminding us of the mesmerising loveliness of Adieu Mon Coeur, for starters. Wainwright can also be proud of an adept performance, but she should move on from cover versions quickly. When she is being herself, she is ten times as powerful.