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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 10:20 am

Surrender, monkeys

The French are different, Charlotte Gainsbourg even more so.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg 5:55 (Because/Atlantic)
Untitled Document The French, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me. They take their dogs to cafés and leave their kids at home with filles au pair. Their television shows pingpong from jiggling bare breasts to jousting philosophes. Is it any wonder that no one seemed the least bit scandalized 23 years ago when the late Serge Gainsbourg, France’s greatest rock star, writhed around with his 13-year-old daughter in the video for their hit single “Lemon Incest”? Was it not enough that pauvre Charlotte had to listen to her mom, British singer/actress Jane Birkin, simulating orgasm in the Gainsbourg/Birkin duet “Je t’aime (moi non plus)”? That Charlotte, now a renowned actress, isn’t trembling in a straitjacket somewhere is a testament to Gallic fortitude — but she did take a lengthy break from recording. The lapse between her lamentable debut album, Charlotte For Ever, written and produced by her doting dad, and its follow-up, 5:55, was a whopping 21 years — long enough for a newborn to reach drinking age in a country square enough to observe such niceties. Sans Mademoiselle Gainsbourg’s illustrious parentage, would anyone care about 5:55? It’s a moot point: We wouldn’t have the chance to care because the record wouldn’t exist, at least not in this steez-saturated form. The music on 5:55 was composed by Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, of the French electronic duo Air; the lyrics were written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker; and the whole shebang was produced by Nigel Godrich, best known for his work with Beck and Radiohead. It’s possible, of course, that these estimable gentlemen have wanted to collaborate with Gainsbourg ever since they saw her brilliant performance in the film Jane Eyre. It’s more likely, though, that they just want a piece of her old man. As has become increasingly obvious in recent years, Sergephilia, a syndrome once confined to francophone hipsters, has gone mainstream, culminating in last year’s tribute comp Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited. If you ask me, the magnificent perv deserves every last drop of fannish slobber, but shouldn’t this reverence be reserved for his musical, as opposed to his genetic, legacy? Such speculation is unkind, especially in light of the fact that Charlotte herself doesn’t seem keen to provoke comparisons with the paterfamilias. She rarely discusses him publicly, and she deliberately chose to sing in English rather than French. According to most reports, she’s a reluctant, painfully inhibited singer who felt compelled to cover her face with a sheet during recording sessions. So why, one wonders, did this successful actress, fashion icon, and bona fide celebrity go to the trouble of making another record at all? Catharsis? Revenge? Self-assertion? In the end, it doesn’t matter. 5:55 is an enjoyable album, if not a great one. Stripped of its psychosexual backstory, it’s a perfectly respectable outing bolstered by dark, elegant orchestration and whip-smart lyrics. Gainsbourg has a thin but surprisingly resonant voice and impressive interpretive gifts; unlike so many singing actresses, she resists the temptation to ham it up, relying instead on an offhand pause, a tiny shudder, a sigh. Although the CD drags a bit in places (its nadir being the cocktail-vamp throwaway “Night-Time Intermission), it is redeemed by standouts such as “The Operation,” a throbbing exegesis of love-song metaphors; “The Songs That We Sing,” a shoegazerish swirl of strings, bells, and pianos; and “Everything I Cannot See,” a grand and rippling study in emotional tonalities. Suffused with a quiet authority, 5:55 sounds like an album that Gainsbourg made for her own reasons, reasons that we’ll speculate about but never understand. The French are different from you and me. René Spencer Saller reviews new music for Illinois Times. Contact her at rssaller@core.com.
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