Thursday, April 22, 2010

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Lights dimmed, restless crowd began cheering with alacrity as the band filtered on to the stage. And then she walked out. Long legged, gamine in Dune-esque slim leather pants, boots, black bra and loose white tank top, grabbing her straight brown hair to one side as she approached the mic. She grabbed at her chin in a recognizable gesture of slight nervousness before thanking the crowd and launching in to the first song from her sophomore album IRM, a brilliant collaboration between Beck and the "her" in this description, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Staged at Park West in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, this was only the second time in 18 years Charlotte had graced Chicago with her presence and the only time as a musical artist. Betraying a slight shyness, she didn't share much but let the music do the communicating.

In spite of tight musicianship, I am always slightly disappointed at live shows where the songs sound, note for note, the same as what is on the album. While this is fine and doesn't always detract from the experience and energy of hearing (and watching) a musician or band live, I find myself a little let down. The first 3 songs from Charlotte and her band felt the same way, as if I may as well have had my ear phones in listening to it at home. But then they launched in to "Heaven Can Wait", "Le Chat du Cafe des Artistes" (a nod to her late father Serge Gainsbourg)and "Trick Pony" and the beauty of live improvisation and reinterpretation began. Structurally, the songs were still very recognizable, but in the hands of her amazing band, there were extended rhythm sections and ridiculously hooky bass lines that enhanced my appreciation of the songs I already loved. The best song was The Operation from her last album entitled 5:55, a collaboration with Jarvis Cocker and Air.
I personally couldn't keep my eyes off the bassist Bram Inscore, who looked like every math geek you've ever seen depicted on the silver screen. Sure he wore skinny pants and hipster Sperry for Band of Outsiders Black Canvas High Topsiders, but from the waist up, he was ready to buzz in with the square root of 144. Tie, button up shirt, gray vneck sweater and nerd glasses. Math wizard or no, he layed down amazing bass lines on a Hofner-style four string with mathematical precision and an artist's vision. He was joined by the incredible (and fresh faced) Eric Gardner on drums, Amir Yaghmai on guitar and strings, Beck's own Brian Le Barton on keys/percussion and Nicole Morier on guitar. Each musician was responsible for several instruments including an upright marching drum, violin, Korg analog keyboard, xylophone, and a wicked bass drum inclined on an old frame that added just the right wooden sounds on certain songs.
Charlotte herself was enchanting, largely because she is guileless. Perhaps it's because she grew up with such iconic parents and presumably around other iconic musicians, artists, and actors, that she is lacking in pretense, but she seems to have a self-awareness of the privileged life she grew up in and the fact that many may be skeptical of yet another actress cum pop star. There is something very childlike and almost innocent about her and it seemed fitting when she chose to cover Bob Dylan's 'Just Like A Woman' ("she aches just like a woman, but she breaks just like a little girl"). It's not just her voice, which drops to a faint whisper at times, it's in her stance and her lyrics as well. IRM chronicles her stint in the hospital after a brain hemorrhage brought on by a water skiing accident and in a very bizarre coincidence, Beck wrote the lyrics "drill a hole inside my head" without knowing of her accident. The second song and title track mimic the electronic buzz and noises of an MRI machine that she became very familiar with over a 6 month period of intense brain scrutiny. Her lyrics, co-written with Beck evoke the image of a person in the middle of their life, remembering, taking stock, and embracing the inevitable that is to come. In the hands of a far less capable band, it would be a difficult album to tour.

In trying to round out her song list for this tour, she chose a few covers and although she said she'd never dared before to cover her father, she did it on this, her first real tour. She chose L'Hotel Particulier from the Melody Nelson album and I couldn't help but think Serge, Gitane ever dangling from his lips, would've been proud.


  1. I like your recap of her concert much more than the actual album, which I've avoided telling you for a while, because of your general excitement over it and her. You are so cute when you are all a flutter about an artist.

    And I share your feeling about concerts, although I've been happily surprised by some really energetic, creative shows recently, like Surfer Blood and Mission of Burma. I just can't seem to stop getting tickets, even though I'm usually more excited about the dinner and drinks beforehand in Milwaukee than the actual show.

    I loved Gainsbourg in Science of Sleep, though, and imagined she'd have a lot of personality live.

    I love that you make time for these sorts of excursions, as busy as you are with your Bonney boys.

  2. I dragged myself there, still feeling very flu-like, because she so rarely tours and despite the late night out, I'm so glad I went. Before I left town, we stopped at Java Den and the guys there were jealous I was going to the show- it seems people either really like the album or are ambivalent, and that's okay! Ear of the beholder, and all!

  3. why isn't this published?

    I haven't listened to the album but now I'm sold...