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This spring, silhouettes are slimming. Flared hippie music, with its messy borders and smudged vision, is the sound of the early-’90s global teen, but cocktail culture demands leaner accompaniment. Cool as The Avengers, sharp as a cane-épée, two recently released collections by almost-forgotten superstars of the early-’60s pop-internationalism scene are as much about style as they are about songs.
Françoise Hardy was the bright pastels of a Jacques Tati filmall great green eyes and kindergarten chord changes, her melting, naive vocals pumping along with the down-up strum of her guitar, neither sound interested in counterpoint or irony or embellishment. In the meat of the ’60s, she was the envy of French schoolgirls just combing out their sprayed teases and ready to study under an unintimidating beauty with beatnik-next-door looks and slender, simple songs.
Everything young and European enchanted that period’s tastemakers, but today Hardy is at most just a memory of thick brown-sugar hair and an endless succession of two-minute pop singles whose indistinguishability is no detriment to their charm. So BMI International is releasing (not here, of course; you have to order it) the complete Vogue recordings, four essential candy-colored discs that span Hardy’s heyday.
Her songsshe composed as well as sang and played guitarare short and easy to follow. Boyfriends come and go, best friends can’t always be trusted, and you can turn to this swinging big sister for advice on just about everything until she gets her own heart broken. Optimistic as the Everly Brothers, Gallically weary as any teen, Hardy spanned a social age as well as a musical one, recording from 1962when her sensuous, childish oom-pah, like that on her first hit, “Oh oh cheri,” could pass for upright folkto 1967, when drug-inflected expansiveness fit easily into Hardy’s repertoire.
Much of the early music is hungover from a previous age’50s American radio pop lurks behind that acoustic guitar. Often the beat is the chug of a hundred ladies’-choice high-school slow dances, dreamily audible on the hip-swaying “Le temps de l’amour” and pallidly on “J’ai jeté mon coeur.” Elsewhere, the hard edges of early Mod are felt; “kooky” bass dyads move the mood one-up, one-down ad infinitum, and the later stuff goes skinny-suit spy-flick, with the indispensable kettledrum waking up “Non ce n’est pas un rêve.”
Hardy never had the vocal verve of the full-time yé-yé singer; she sounds reflective even when preaching pop pleasures over existential rumination. The bone-bareness of the vocal performances and musical arrangements almost passes for style. (A 5-year-old could snap along in time to “Il est parti un jour”; the up-front strumming all over the first disc is inescapableeverybody must shimmy.) As with some traditional country & western, Hardy’s plain singing manages to sound earnest without having any conviction. Disc 2’s “Pas gentille” is unapologetically C&W-derivedby this time America had its ear to Hardy, and vice versa.
The stiff, unsmiling beauty composed as if part of a still life all over these gorgeous liner notes shakes loose a little as time moves on. She never does coin anything, but near the end of Disc 1 gets fierce and even grown-up on “On dit de lui”impatience turns her voice wildly sexy. She works out with the scantest hint of the blues on Disc 2’s “Je n’attends plus personne” without scuffing her patent-leather boots. Disc 3 picks up the pace with “Je veux qu’il revienne,” a half-hearty sing-along; “Dis lui non,” which has “oui-oui” in its sleepy, slinky rhythms, is almost yearning.
Disc 4 finds Hardy’s sound rounding out and coping with the timesstrings come into heavy play, and “Je t’aime” has enough of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” in its chorus to raise eyebrows. There’s folkie fingerpicking (notably on “Tu verras”) and dreamy atmospherics that could pass for vague psychedelia if you squint on “Je ne suis là pour personne,” an obvious directive from the opaque Hardy.
As a singer, she has an almost subterranean sense of where to put the notes, but not a lot of overt style, aside from borrowing some of Edith Piaf’s breathy keening. But the French have never been interested in pure singing; it’s one aesthetic form that hasn’t engaged French culture. That may be thanks to the language, stereotypically lovely when spoken, but too guttural and unspacious to sing with any magnificence. (Or it may be due to the caliber of the talent poolbonjour, Johnny Halliday!)
If Françoise Hardy was not bubbling over with talent, she became a pop star for other good reasons, most of them circumstantial. She was a bracing antidote to the cocktail charms of showier French girl singers like Sylvie Vartan and Juliette Greco, with their sparkly hair and outdated bosoms. She was as close as any place without a raw pop songwriting tradition could get to a homegrown Dylanin a tone-deaf country, the one-eared composer is king. But mostly she was beautiful; her earth-angel voice and her fresh-faced pop reflected that beauty. Like the singer herself, L’integrale Disques are as clean and hyperreal as a Magritte sky.
During his strong middle years as a composer, Serge Gainsbourg claimed America for inspiration but never went far enough to cop stateside sounds. His decadent cabaret pop came out of the chanson tradition, which in his hands lost its Left Bank dourness and acquired a debauched gloss. But over the years the music worked its way through all the more curvaceous fads of the time. Gainsbourg trafficked in dangerous cha-cha (“Cha cha cha du loup”; Gainsbourg affected the predatory, dissolute persona of a wolf), hard-chopping mambo (“Mambo miam miam”), and the society party-chic sounds of bossa nova, before exploring African rhythms (the latter half of Couleur Café), the freedom of jazz, and the inexorable beat of funk.
Mercury’s collection of three collectionsthe discs are separate and ignore much of Gainsbourg’s output, including his film scoringbypasses chronology for genre: Couleur Café, spanning, in bits and pieces, 1959-1975, is the funkiest, with its vicious Latin rhythms and broad African experiments, Du Jazz dans le Ravin sports jazz ribald and mellow from 1958-1964, and Comic Strip, covering 1966-1969, is skewed pop with one eye on the States.
Couleur Café is Gainsbourg at his most sarcastic and, therefore, best. The lanky, vulpine son of Russian immigrants, he got by on an acidic mixture of seductive attitude, self-deprecation, street smarts, and jaundice; Couleur Café is the best expression of Gainsbourg’s volatile persona. In between the pleasant and/or sinister cabaret wallpaper, “L’Anthracite” is cold, black, and hard as its title, but infinitely danceable, while “Laissez-moi tranquille,” with its “I’m a loner, baby” posing, would be risible if it weren’t so mean.
A dubious girl squeals and laughs her way out of “Pauvre Lola” to a straight-Latin sound, and “Les cigarillos” rumbas along with kitschy marimbas underpinning the singer’s chocolatey vocals; it’s like knocking on the wrong door in a cheap seaside hotel and overhearing too much from the couple across the hall. The Latin sound then migrates east, introducing African polyrhythms, chanting, and an ominous chorale sound that isn’t as effective as Gainsbourg’s own misterioso murmurs.
Du Jazz is just what it says, Serge-styleswinging commercial jazz for people not up to the hard stuff. There’s the weary sound of the metal brush against the snare, and the saxophone toots along claiming loneliness. It’s some of the most entertaining fake jazz ever recorded. Comic Strip is one of those jaw-dropping, triumphant failuresexasperating, ambitious, and horribly fascinating. Like Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Demy, Gainsbourg looked to the bright ferocity of American culture with longing and translated it into something rich and strange, something that couldn’t possibly be less American.
“Bonnie and Clyde,” a doomy duet with Brigitte Bardot, has been sampled but should be heard in its bizarre entirety. Bardot also shows up spurring a circular laudanum dream (“Initials B.B.”) and providing the ridiculous onomatopoeia for the title tune, a hiccuping attempt to capture in sound the overbright infantile simplicity and exaggerated violence of the comics. Bored, demonic females sneer, “Hello, Doctor Jekyll” on “Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde,” and “Black and White” may have good intentions, but it’s hard to get past Gainsbourg lustily sinking his teeth into the opening line, which begins, “Une negresse…”
But there’s plenty that doesn’t defy belief. “Chatterton” will have you seeing go-go girls in the corner of your living room; “Qui Est in Qui Est Out” revives the bored girls to watusi the chorus, only now they’re snotty, too. Gainsbourg’s notorious “Soixante Neuf Année Érotique” and the banned-everywhere-but-France hit “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus” are perfect pop tunes and neither is as racy as its rep, but it probably helps to have a patchy command of French. Considered something of a scandal for his sexual outspokenness and depraved acting-uphe burned 500 francs on live TV, posed in drag for an album cover, and expressed a desire, also on live TV, to fuck Whitney Houston (only one of these acts indicates bad taste)Gainsbourg recorded “Lemon Incest” with his daughter Charlotte; sadly, it is not included here.
Gainsbourg was a witty composer; he liked to make trouble for himself and sneak or hack his way out of it. His French is guttural and thornyhe seems to choose word arrangements that were incredibly difficult to sing smoothly and delights in spitting out the phrases as if he were a wolf ejecting chicken bones. To a small degree, Gainsbourg has been respected and even covered by modern bands, but his considerable songwriting output should not be overlooked by fans. The Mercury releases, incomplete as they are, capture the man and the times he wrote ofwild, enchanting, and problematic.CP