“Stage Whisper” – Charlotte Gainsbourg

3 stars (out of 5)

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Charlotte Gainsbourg has a voice and a presence that is perfectly suited to a recording studio. Her second album, ‘IRM’, where she worked with and was produced by Beck was more successful than her, passive ethereal debut (as an adult at least), ‘5:55’, which found Jarvis Cocker on song-writing duties along with Nigel Godrich producing. It had far more bite and sonic diversity with Beck coaxing a more sardonic and engaging performance from Gainsbourg and her plummy, plaintive voice (no sign of a French accent although she occasionally sings in the language) and showed that she could be an interesting, elegant artist in her own right.  Interesting though that both Cocker and Beck have also written for Marianne Faithful, another artist whose singing voice is an acquired taste but who has no problem in attracting hi-profile collaborators due to her ability and willingness to interpret almost exclusively male narratives.

I’m hoping that Stage Whisper is just a stop-gap album as I looking forward to seeing how Gainsbourg develops as a musical artist, already an accomplished actress.  It certainly feels like a stop-gap album. The first eight songs here are new and are studio recorded, the remaining 11 tracks are live renditions of tracks from her first two albums including one cover version (Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’, not good) all recorded on Gainsbourg’s last European tour. It would be a disjointed and messy move for a more traditionally ‘live’ artist to release such a half hearted compilation but for Gainsbourg it really only serves to highlight her weaknesses. The longer, live section that makes up just over half of this album is at best a curio for fans. With a limp and insipid live band Charlotte is certainly not the only one to blame for this but her voice is just not made for a big venue. Only on the robust interpretation of  Cocker’s ‘The Operation’ does she actually improve on the original recording; the clarity and urgency of her vocals sitting on the top of a tight, chugging guitar riff. Elsewhere she struggles to recapture the atmosphere of the studio albums.

The new tracks that begin the album include some of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s best work to date. The first 4 songs see her and Beck continue their work together and build on the electronic indie-pop sound that dominated IRM. The schaffel beats of ‘Terrible Angels’ are reminiscent of Goldfrapp’s glam rock period but don’t feel like a pastiche and the double hand -claps of ‘Paradisco’ are already attracting big name re-mixers. The baroque, haunting ‘White Telephone’ and deadpan ‘All the Rain’ are more downbeat but just as diverting. The remaining 4 tracks all see Gainsbourg imagined as a folky story teller; a duet with Charlie Fink (Noah and the Whale) starts well at least and the brief ‘Anna’ is the most successful song of this bunch with a nice piano solo that brings the song to an all too early end. It would have been nice to have a whole album of new songs especially considering the quality on show here but in the meantime this will just about do.