Charlotte Gainsbourg Stage Whisper Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

An obvious, albeit appealing, stopgap release.

Martin Aston 2012

Whatever the merits of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s dreamy, pale delivery, it’s doubtful she would ever choose singing as her primary career option. Nor, for that matter, would anyone else. The same goes for her mum Jane Birkin, whose link to dad Serge gave her a musical platform. And, like mum, Charlotte is a very powerful muse; Air and Jarvis Cocker conjured up something special for her 2006 debut (as an adult) album 5.55 and 2009’s Beck-helmed IRM was even more intoxicating. So it’s brave, foolhardy or both to release a live album, where our gallant girl is stripped of studio cushioning and also has to fight a more thumping version of her music. Calling the album Stage Whisper suggests she’s aware of it, too.

It’s not that Gainsbourg is swallowed up by her band, more that she doesn’t – or can’t – rise to the occasion as a natural singer can. There’s no extra layer of interpretation, for example, as her version of Dylan’s Just Like a Woman shows. It still charms, though: she doesn’t really sing it, more breathes it, and her band’s arrangement (right out of the Velvet Underground Sunday Morning songbook) follows suit. Jamais is the live standout, with its spongy bass undulating behind Gainsbourg. But surely no 5.55 or IRM fan will prefer these versions, though the bonus DVD has the added value of Charlotte’s brooding stage presence, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage and of-the-moment Instagram-style frippery.

What helps even more is that the added album of out-takes – though at 27 minutes and eight tracks, it’s more of a VEP (Very Extended Player). Of the four Beck off-cuts, none would have disgraced IRM; Terrible Angels’ meaty glam strut (where a more energised Gainsbourg sounds more like Lush’s Miki Berenyi than breathless waif) and Paradisco (a Beck-ian lo-fi reworking of David Bowie’s Fame) might even have improved it. The remaining four tracks call on new Disciples of Serge: Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink joins in to play the Velvets-and-Nico-ballad card on Got to Let Go, and Connan Mockasin sublimates his usual complex approach for the generically lovely Out of Touch.

Conor ‘Villagers’ O'Brien’s Memoir is thin by his standards, but the finest new track here is Anna, written by Asa Taccone (of LA duo Electric Guest), who nails that insouciant yet flushed passion that epitomises Gainsbourg’s appeal with a twist of John Barry romance. A couple more similarly disarming tracks plus, say, a four-track live bonus and Stage Whisper could have been a groovy follow-up to IRM instead of the obvious stop-gap it’s intended to be.

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