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

“Ideally music is more instinctive than acting,” said Gainsbourg, who speaks softly and precisely with a slight British accent. “On this album I tried to let my instincts guide me and tried not be so guarded — tried to let accidents happen.”

It was a less happy kind of accident that spurred IRM in the first place. Vacationing in the US in the summer of 2007, Gainsbourg had a minor fall while water-skiing. Six months later she went to the doctor in Paris, complaining of chronic headaches. An MRI scan revealed that she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was lucky to be alive.

Gainsbourg underwent successful emergency surgery but remained convinced that she was unwell, continuing to schedule MRI examinations for months after getting a clean bill of health. “I was so preoccupied with my condition, always thinking that I had something,” she recalled.

When she turned her attention to a new record in early 2008, she had two goals in mind: to sing about her medical crisis and to work with Beck, whom she had met some years earlier. “I’d admired him so much,” she said. That spring, she traveled to Beck’s home studio in Los Angeles, where the pair began working through a few songs. One of the first results was Master’s Hands. Written entirely by Beck, it included lyrics that eerily evoked Gainsbourg’s medical experiences: “Drill my brain/All full of holes/And patch it before it leaks.” Yet Beck had said he was unaware of Gainsbourg’s brain hemorrhage until after the song had been composed. (His sound engineer pointed out the coincidence.) For Gainsbourg it was a sign that this was a good musical match.

“Beck had a way of guessing what I was thinking and feeling without my telling him,” she said. “We never discussed these things explicitly. He asked me what I wanted the album to sound like, but I didn’t want to close myself in. So I didn’t give him too much direction.”

The partnership really clicked with the title track, IRM. (“IRM” is the French equivalent of “MRI,” an acronym for magnetic resonance imaging.) Over the many months of her health crisis Gainsbourg grew oddly fond of MRI scanners and their grating, grinding sounds. (Think of an idling combine harvester.) She found audio clips online, which she brought to Beck as the building blocks for a song. Like many of the songs on the album, IRM juxtaposes severity and dreaminess, with a keyboard chiming above the blare of the MRI samples. Gainsbourg sings lyrics that move between the medical and the metaphysical:

Ghost imagining my mind

Neural pattern like a spider ...

From the cortex to medulla

Analyze EKG

Can you see a memory?

You can detect plenty of Beck in that song, from the surreal turns of phrase to the slacker’s monotone in which Gainsbourg sings. At times the album sounds uncannily like a sequel to Beck’s Modern Guilt (2008), with songs like the blues-rock Trick Pony staking out a similar sonic and spiritual middle-ground between the digital present and the psychedelic 1960s.

Gainsbourg, of course, is used to working collaboratively, in music as in film. Her formative record-making experience, the 1986 album Charlotte for Ever, was written and produced by her father. On 5:55 the main songwriting duties were handled by the English singer and songwriter Jarvis Cocker, the former frontman of Pulp, and a self-styled roue in the Serge Gainsbourg mold. She studied classical piano as a child, but is staunchly self-deprecating about her musical ability.

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