Poet & Provocateur

Serge Gainsbourg

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Poet & Provocateur Review

by Richie Unterberger

Though all 32 tracks on this compilation are connected to Gainsbourg, know beforehand that he's the featured artist on just 14 of them. Recorded entirely in 1958 and 1959, the CD also includes interpretations of songs he wrote or were co-written by a passel of performers, most notably five by Juliette Gréco. There are also three cuts from music he co-wrote for the soundtrack to the 1959 film L'eau à La Bouche, and, a tad questionably, five songs from the 1959 film Voulez-Vous Danser Avec Moi?, in which he acted (and met star Brigitte Bardot), though he was involved in none of them as a singer or composer. This might not be the music Gainsbourg is most known for, especially on an international level. But in its way, it's a good look at about as much music from his early career as can fit onto a 78-minute CD, even if it's assembled a little haphazardly. Of most interest is the material from his second album (1959's N02), presented in its entirely to lead off the disc. This finds him already a singer and melody maker of considerable wit and mischievous verve, if in a more decidedly jazz- and Latin-indebted style than he'd usually employ in the future. A stray 1959 studio track ("La Jambe de Bois") follows, leading into four less impressive songs from a live 1958 performance at a Paris theater, in part because these feature just his voice and piano. The best of the numerous Gainsbourg covers that occupy most of the rest of the CD are the five by Gréco (all but one from her EP Juliette Gréco Chante Gainsbourg), marking her as a fine, vivacious interpreter of both his boisterously upbeat and more melancholic tunes. Hugues Aufray might be the best known of the other vocalists (though he does just one tune), but all of them are worth hearing for both the songs and the performances, the Les Frères Jacques' rapid-fire choral jazz (on "Le Poinconneur des Lilas") being perhaps the most memorable. Gainsbourg returns on vocals for the theme song to the catchy romantic theme to "L'eau a la Bouche" (one of the best tracks here), though the other two selections from the film are moody instrumental jazz pieces. The five numbers from Voulez-Vous Danser Avec Moi? that end the disc are more typical late-'50s romantic pop, sometimes with a cha-cha or mambo beat, that seem like they were put on just to fill out the program. As early as this is in Gainsbourg's development, it's obvious from this material that he was already a major figure in French pop as both a songwriter and a performer. Since this British CD is obviously geared toward non-French audiences who might not be familiar with it already, it's thus unfortunate that it hasn't been more effectively assembled. The liner notes, though fairly lengthy (and in English), are more an appreciation/overview of his life and character than a commentary on the actual music this compilation contains. Though basic recording information is supplied for the material, no context is provided for detailing where Gainsbourg was at this juncture in his career, on which releases the other performers interpreted these songs, or his exact involvement with the film soundtracks that are excerpted. It's certainly enjoyable nonetheless, but there's room for improvement in a presentation of his work from this period.