The title of this compilation issued by Cherry Red's El imprint is perhaps the most fitting of all. Most English-speaking audiences came to Jacques Brel through his later, far more polished work, or through the sideways reference of Scott Walker's hit "Jacky," off his debut solo album, or the bitterly comedic works of Jake Thackray. These recordings -- an astonishing 34 of them on a single disc -- offer a different yet accurate and profound portrait of the artist as a young, wild man. Brel is often depicted, as Christopher Evans' fine liner notes emphatically state -- as a moody, French-speaking Leonard Cohen-esque figure (he also finally lays out the harsh truth that Brel suffered as an artist at the hands of singers like Sinatra and Rod McKuen, who took terrible liberties with his lyrics in translation in order to make them palatable to). Nope. His work, while obsessed with twisted images of self-abasing love and lust, ghetto-dwelling slices of life and death, was often just savagely funny. His sense of humor was not so existential as it was delightfully mischievous and satirical. Politically savvy yet refusing to be pigeonholed, Brel was a figure who was embraced in France by both the left and the right -- much like Serge Gainsbourg but for different reasons. Here are two very different sides of early Brel. These tracks were all recorded between 1953 and 1956. The first 18 are all studio versions with the minimal orchestrations from Brel's longtime collaborator Francois Rauber and arrangers from André Grassi, Michel Legrand to Andre Popp. The latter 17 songs, from track 19 onwards, are taken from a radio broadcast, and place the artist and his acoustic guitar in front of a microphone, period. While the sheer genius of the orchestral and arranged versions of these songs is evident from the first notes of "La Haine" ("The Hate"), with its twisting and turning rhythmic starts and stops, it is in the acoustic versions of many of these same songs where the truth of Brel's gift becomes nakedly self-evident. His guitar playing is superb, his sense of jazz syncopation as it met café society balladry is unequaled, and his gift for melody was never to be touched. And Evans is right in another aspect of his writing, as well: that listeners do not have to be French speakers to be able to appreciate Brel's genius. Even for the time period, the recording quality is full, warm, and clean.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek