Mon, Jan 25, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Beyond the Gainsbourg birthright

Charlotte Gainsbourg emerges from the shadows of her musical legacy with ‘IRM,’ an album of whispery vocals produced and largely written by Beck

By Jody Rosen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, NEW YORK

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It doesn’t take long for IRM, the new album by the French singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, to start sounding Gainsbourgian. The record opens with Master’s Hands, a ballad full of tense guitar and banjo picking, clattering percussion and strings that dart and swoop.

In a voice pitched between a hiss and a whisper, Gainsbourg sings:

Hold my head up

Right foot back

Take my hands down

Shake my back

Pull my strings

And cut my rope

It is Gainsbourg’s signature vocal maneuver. It is also her birthright. That dreamy whisper-singing — a style that gives every lyric the feeling of a slightly scandalous confession — was pioneered by her father, the Gallic pop great and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, and perfected in his famous collaborations with Gainsbourg’s mother, Jane Birkin, the English actress and vocalist.

It can be hard to get past the pedigree when considering Gainsbourg. She has had a long and successful career as a film actress, starring in dozens of movies, including Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep and Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist, for which she won the best actress award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. (Gainsbourg’s husband is the actor and director Yvan Attal.)

But as a singer, the legacy of her father looms large. Like Julian Lennon, like Ziggy Marley, like Jakob Dylan, she is blessed and burdened with a name that not only defines an illustrious musical era but seems to sum up a national sensibility. Her father’s witty, smutty, sonically inventive recordings are the most celebrated French pop of the second half of the 20th century. Hits like the heavy-breathing Gainsbourg-Birkin duet Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus, from 1969, capture France’s sexiness and urbanity as surely as Bob Marley’s songs speak to the Jamaican soul and Bob Dylan’s distill American roots music tradition.

From the beginning the musical career of Gainsbourg fille has been entwined with that of Gainsbourg père, who died in 1991. Gainsbourg made her recording debut in 1985 at 13, a duet with her father on one of his juiciest succès de scandales, Lemon Incest. On Gainsbourg’s 2006 CD 5:55, her first album after a 20-year musical hiatus, she sounded weighed down by her patrimony, singing in a voice delicate to the point of self-effacing amid orchestral pop arrangements that explicitly echoed her father’s records.

“Just because my father was such a genius with his songwriting, his lyrics, his music — that doesn’t mean I have any gift,” Gainsbourg, 38, said in a telephone interview from her home in Paris. “I don’t believe in that. I have my own path. But the comparisons are constant. And the comparisons are heavy to wear.”

In an e-mail message Birkin asserted that her daughter has already found her own identity. “I think she has established, in two very big-selling records, that ‘she is she,’ not Serge, not me. But, sweetly she has our voices in her head.”

Yet on IRM, which was produced and largely written by Beck, Gainsbourg’s anxiety of influence seems to have dissipated. She still sings in that patented Gainsbourgian hiss on Master’s Hands and several other tracks. But she branches out elsewhere, ambling through folk-rock ballads, venturing into dance-punk and blues, and letting Beck swamp her voice in layers of distortion. The result is an engrossingly eclectic pop record and a kind of coming-out party: the first time that Gainsbourg the chanteuse has displayed the charisma of Charlotte Gainsbourg the actress.

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