By Al Kaufman
Finally, the often asked question, "What would Beck sound like as a French woman?" has been answered.
All right, so maybe the question was never asked, but with release of Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM, it has been answered anyway.
Gainsbourg is the daughter of French singer-songwriter, actor and director Serge Gainsbourg (of whom Beck is a fan), and British actress and singer Jane Birkin. She is an accomplished thespian who recently won the Best Actress award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for the film Antichrist, which also stars Willem Defoe. She made her musical debut at the age of 12, singing a duet with her father on the song "Lemon Incest" on her father's album, Love on the Beat. The song, about incest and pedophilia between a father a daughter, caused quite a sensation, even in free-loving France, which was the elder Gainsbourg's intention.
Since that time, Charlotte Gainsbourg's hipness quotient has only increased. Her 2006 release, 5:55, was produced by Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, and for IRM she chose the perennially cool Beck (of whom Godrich has also produced) to twist the knobs. Beck also wrote most of the tracks, plays many of the instruments, and even duets with Gainsbourg on the first single, the bouncy "Heaven Can Wait."
So Gainsbourg is cool, but can she sing? Well, it's kind of hard to tell. Gainsbourg has a cool, breathy vocal that she never really tests. It co-mingles well with the bed of sounds Beck lays out on IRM, much in the way Beck's own voice fits into his songs. It's nice enough but, like Beck, she will never be thought of as a great singer.
But this CD does have Gainsbourg's stamp on it. The album's title, IRM, is a French acronym for the English MRI. Gainsbourg underwent many MRIs after suffering a cerebral brain hemorrhage due to a water skiing accident in 2007. She thought the whirrings and stutterings of the machine would make great music. She made recordings of the machine and sent them to Beck, who created the hypnotic, drum-heavy, title track. And even though the simple and elegant "In the End" was written by Beck, it presents Gainsbourg in her stripped down beauty. Beck is a master at lo-fi high-tech stuff. He can distort bass, loop sounds, throw in string arrangements, and load in drum beats off a dump truck, but still generate songs with a folky base. Gainsbourg is able to cooly stay with Beck throughout all his musical forays. She feels comfortable in his shoes.
Plus when she sings in French (or in English on "Trick Pony" for that matter) she sounds downright sexy, and that's never a bad thing.