While cynics have put Jane Birkin's motivations for this concert recording in question, their suspicions say more about them than about this music. Arabesque, which is finally available in America, is singer and actress Birkin's tribute to the music of the late Serge Gainsbourg, her mentor, late (and ex) husband, and producer. Recorded in March 2002 at the Olympia Theater in Paris, Arabesque puts the music of Gainsbourg, one of France's most unlikely and beloved national heroes, into an altogether different context: North African folk music as it meets new age exotica. And does it ever work. With a quintet of Arabic musicians backing her, Birkin uses her austere French to give new utterance and meaning to Gainsbourg's tunes, from the stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking read of "Elisa," which feels like the sunrise on a desert plain, to the forlorn, lilting violin of Djamel Ben Yelles over keyboards and hand percussion that poetically inform "L'Amour de Moi" as they entwine the duet vocals of Birkin and Memouen. "Couleur Café," a Gainsbourg classic, is decorated with Caribbean and Latin percussion, and Birkin's dry delivery is nonetheless full of off-color suggestive delight. "Valse de Melody" is full of arid and prayerful intonations by Memouen before Birkin enters to sing backup on this gorgeous song of desolation and mourning. Birkin's radical reworking of these songs would no doubt have pleased Gainsbourg, because she infuses them with the soul of an innocent who longs to be a rake, and one who understands implicitly their worth as both pop songs and works of erotic and necessary poetry. Her reading of "Amours des Feintes" is colored by an aching, long-suffering grace that voices its disbelief in the absence of the Beloved. As the set ends first with "Baby Alone in Babylone" (sic) and finally with the a cappella "La Javanaise," Birkin's transformation of Gainsbourg is complete; she has rendered his music universally communicable, accessible to any audience whether or not they speak French. It is the music of passion, of heartbreak, of loneliness, and of longing, and given the musical framework she has chosen, these songs come across as poetry that flows effortlessly from the font in the dark rivers of the heart. Arabesque is a sensual and musical triumph as well as an aesthetic treasure. Hopefully the album -- and the DVD which is also available -- will make Gainsbourg's music known by scores who would not otherwise have been blessed to encounter him.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek