Sweet Charlotte: Gainsbourg Exposed At Palace Of Fine Arts


It’s not farfetched to see ‘09 as something of a banner year for Charlotte Gainsbourg, actress and muse to Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga: She brought home a best acting award from Cannes for her courageous turn in Lars Von Trier’s sexually and violently graphic Antichrist as a mourning mother taking her grief out on her and her husband’s bodies in some cringe-inducing ways, and she produced yet another acclaimed album, IRM (Because). 

Her third long-player is nowhere near as hard to take as Antichrist -- in fact, collaborator and producer Beck does his darnedest to make it go down as silkily, yet artfully, as any well-crafted, thoughtful pop disc. It’s a cunningly, lovingly designed recording -- and handily reads as  a debt paid by Beck to Gainsbourg’s father, French music icon and innovator Serge Gainsbourg, who has clearly left his mark on Beck’s music from 2002’s Sea Change onward. Despite the quiet confidence of IRM -- and the long shadow cast by her father, who, ever the provocateur, duetted with his daughter on “Lemon Incest” in 1984, Gainsbourg is still relatively untried as a live musical performer -- so rest assured, her first concert in SF Saturday, April 17, at the Palace of Fine Arts, will get its share of scrutiny.

The title of IRM at first seems like the only thing that hints at Gainsbourg’s tendency to cut close to the bone, an artistic approach that she shared with both her father and mother, Jane Birkin, and was less apparent in her collaboration with such strong writers and producers as Air and Nigel Godrich on 2006’s much-praised 5:55 (Because).

Gainsbourg’s 2007 head injury after a seemingly minor waterskiing accident led to a cerebral hemorrhage and multiple brain scans -- hence the French translation of MRI. Deep inside the bowels of the machine, Gainsbourg started to think about music.

Antichrist also left a light imprint of its dark material on the songs, judging from the body-strewn finale of her “Heaven Can Wait” video, and the fatalism of such lyrics as the chamber-folk “In the End,” rendered with music-box bells and tender acoustic guitar: “Treading so long / I can’t see where we’ve been / tracks on the trail / and nails digging in / who’s to say it’s all for the / best in the end.”

Consider this both the next Beck album and an imminently Charlotte Gainsbourg recording, as her soft, intimate-sounding vocals stretch in new actorly ways: she sounds more robotic and harsher than she ever has on the musique concrete-esque “IRM” and raps through megaphone effects on the beat-head pastiche “Greenwich Mean Time.” The teamwork recalls a Serge Gainsbourg-Charlotte Birkin musical meeting -- with Birkin providing the malleable feminine foil to Serge’s convention-tweaking roue -- though it hews closer to other partnerships of that ‘60s era a la Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra.

Like Sinatra, Charlotte Gainsbourg was born into musical royalty, and likewise, she has a full-fledged personality, career, and ambitions of her own. And Beck manages to scan her noggin and pen some pop beauties that suit her beautifully -- like “Heaven Can Wait” and “Time of the Assassins” -- although some of the most haunting tunes here skirt a direct hook-up to a listener’s heart: the violet-hued, French-language and classically Serge-like “Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes” and the cinematic “La Collectionneuse,” spun around a creepily rotating piano figure and “Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte”-ish hums. With IRM, Gainsbourg collects yet another feather in her cap -- we’ll see if the concert stage is scanned and conquered just as adeptly.

Charlotte Gainsbourg performs Saturday, April 17, 8 p.m., at Palace of Fine Arts, SF. $37.50. 415-421-8497, anotherplanetent.com

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