Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bastille Day, Georges Brassens Style

To celebrate Bastille Day, last night at Barbes the Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande and his Bad Reputation project played a richly lyrical, amusing yet often intense tribute to a dead French songwriter who is iconic on his home turf but little-known here. De Gaillande has been coming up with English translations and edgy chamber-pop arrangements of Georges Brassens songs for a couple of years now, many of them available on Bad Reputation’s album (which received a rave review here last year). Last night’s show included several of those numbers as well as new versions that hold up mightly alongside what de Gaillande has already reworked. Behind him, clarinetist David Spinley’s lines smoldered and gleamed with an often eerie gypsy tinge against the accordion swirls of Chicha Libre keyboardist Josh Camp and the jaunty pulse from Christian Bongers’ upright bass and the group’s new drummer, who was clearly psyched to be playing this gig. De Gaillande is also a much better guitarist than Brassens (a brilliant wordsmith but limited musician who actually wrote most of his songs on piano before transposing them to guitar).

Brassens’ songs are a goldmine of irony and black humor. He eulogizes people while they’re still alive, kvetches that the only people who won’t gleefully witness his execution will be the blind, and goes to bat for young lovers engaged in overt displays of PDA, only to remind them to enjoy their moment of bliss before it goes straight to hell. The band played each of those songs (including a stoic, nonchalantly intense version of Brassens’ signature song, Mauvaise Reputation, in the original French) along with sly versions of Penelope – which recasts the tragic Greek heroine as seduction object – as well as the Princess and the Troubadour, where a busy singer somewhat disingenuously resists the temptation to hook up with jailbait, and the absolutely hilarious Don Juan, a ribald yet subtle satire of wannabe-macho ladykillers. And the newer arrangements were just as fascinating. The original version of La Complainte des Filles de Joie is a coyly sympathetic look at the daily life of a hooker. De Gaillande’s translation cast the “filles de joie” as “ladies of leisure,” adding yet another, unexpectedly spot-on satirical element, right down to the “sons of vapid women” who frequent them: yuppies and whores, one and the same. He also led the group through swinging versions of a wry number about a guy who succeeds in seducing the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman, as well as the uneasy tale of an accordionist who’s gone off to the afterlife, lit up by a long, nicely ironic musette solo from Camp. By the time they got to The Pornographer – Brassens’ defiantly X-rated response to being banned from French radio – it was past midnight and nobody had left the room. Nice to see the songs of “the perverted son of the singalong” getting discovered by an audience he assuredly never would have expected to reach.

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July 16, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Genius of Georges Brassens Revealed for English Listeners

By all accounts, Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation cd is the first full-length album devoted to English-language versions of songs by legendary, obscene French songwriter Georges Brassens. Brassens was more punk than just about anybody: an atheist and a communist, his records were frequently banned by the authorities during his early years in the 1950s, which only fueled his popularity. His songs are irresistibly funny, driven by a snarling contempt for middle-class conformity and an unwavering populism. Why did Brassens never catch on here? De Gaillande sidestepped the question when we asked him last summer. It’s because Brassens’ arrangements are simple to the point of sometimes being threadbare. It’s obvious that Brassens saw himself as a poète maudit with guitar rather than a musician lyricist like Richard Thompson or Steve Kilbey. Here, de Gaillande (frontman and lead guitarist of two of this era’s finest art-rock bands, the Snow and Melomane) tersely and brilliantly fleshes out the arrangements with a frequently ominous blend of gypsy jazz and noir cabaret, featuring his Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass. The result is fearlessly iconoclastic, vicious and hilarious: in other words, it does justice to the originals. And musically, it’s actually an improvement: de Gaillande’s strong, clear baritone adds nuance in a way that the gruff Brassens never could. The songs themselves date from the 40s (the shuffling title track, Brassens’ signature song, defiantly asserting that only the blind wouldn’t join in gleefully to watch his execution) – to the 70s (a literally obscenely funny version of Don Juan).

Brassens didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he had could smell a hypocrite a mile away. Those qualities brought out the cynic in him, front and center here on Public Benches (Les Amoureux des bancs publics). While the masses may see them as fit “for only the impotent or the obese,” they’re actually quite romantic. The song goes on as a ringing and surprisingly uncynical endorsement of PDA – for awhile anyway, until it becomes clear that the point is to let the young lovers have their way since the sum total of their happiness together will pretty much be limited to their time sitting in the park. Likewise, To Die For Your Ideas (Mourir pour des idées) lampoons the limousine liberals who can’t tell the difference between an idea that’s worth sacrificing oneself for and one that’s not, despite all evidence including the “killing fields and mass graves.” That one’s done as a deadpan duet with eclectic chanteuse Keren Ann.

The best songs here are the most harshly funny ones, which resonate with innumerable levels of meaning. On one hand, Don Juan lauds the lothario who’d rescue a lonely woman from a sad, otherwise permanent virginal state, along with the nun who “defrosted the penis of the amputee.” On the other, it’s a sendup of any wannabe ladies man who’d count a night with an utterly undesirable woman as a notch on the belt. The Pornographer rather disingenuously tries to play off Brassens’ sexually explicit lyrics as a decision to relent and give the people what they want – and the images are so over-the-top ridiculous, and perfectly rendered in English, that this version is no less entertaining or explicit than the original. The dilemma is revisited even more entertainingly on Trumpets of Fortune and Fame (Les Trompettes de la renommeé), a snide look at celebrity: then as now, sex sells.

There are three other angry classics here. On one level, Ninety-Five Percent gives a shout-out to a woman who wants sex with love; on another, it’s a springboard for another spot-on, obscenity-laden Brassens spoof of a wannabe stud. The resolutely swinging anticonformist anthem Philistines quietly takes pride in the “unwanted progeny” that the unthinking masses assume will grow up to be cleanshaven accountants: instead, they’re all going to turn into shaggy poets. And the savage I Made Myself Small (Je me suis fait tout petit) drips with equal amounts of contempt for the jealous bitch who’ll spear a flower with her parasol lest her boyfriend think it more attractive than she is, and for the spineless wimp who’ll let her get away with it. The rest of the album includes the wry Princess and the Troubadour (La princesse et le croque-notes), a missed opportunity for statutory rape; Penelope, a cynical look at seducing a married woman, and the surprisingly upbeat, proletarian Song for the Countryman (Chanson pour l’auvergnat).

De Gaillande’s translations match Brassens’ original lyrics in both rhyme and meter, an impressive achievement by any standard, fortuitously enabled by Brassens’ habit of continuing a single, long phrase over the course of several bars. It’s even more impressive considering how well the double entendres and slang of the original have been rendered here. In a couple of instances, de Gaillande mutes the dirty words: for example, in Ninety-Five Percent, “s’emmerde” is translated as “bores her out of her mind” rather than “pisses her off.” But in the spirit of Brassens, he adds an emphatic “fuck” or two where there were none before. Several of the translations’ subtleties are genuinely exquisite: for example, in To Die for Your Ideas, de Gaillande alludes to a guillotine rather than the scaffold in the original lyric. And in Trumpets of Fortune and Fame, he chooses to translate “pederasty” literally rather than going with its usual connotation (“pédérastique” is a somewhat dated way of saying “gay”). Francophones will have a field day comparing all these side by side (one reason why this review has been in the works for such a long time – the album’s official release was this summer). Pierre de Gaillande plays this album with his band along with special guests Joel Favreau (Brassens’ lead guitarist) and Favreau’s longtime collaborator, keyboardist Jean-Jacques Franchin Friday, December 17 at 9 PM at the 92YTribeca on Hudson St.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Georges Brassens Comes Alive in English – An Interview with Pierre de Gaillande of Bad Reputation

One of the great songwriters of our time, Pierre de Gaillande plays in more great bands than maybe anybody else on the planet. In addition to fronting the poignantly multistylistic chamber-pop band The Snow, he’s recently resurrected his popular, fierily anthemic art-rock band, Melomane. Yet his current focus is a new project, Bad Reputation, the first American group dedicated to performing English-language versions of the songs of iconic French anarchist chansonnier Georges Brassens. In between rehearsals and the media crush of an upcoming cd release show for its debut on Barbes Records (June 12 at the Bell House), de Gaillande managed to find the time to get a few words in edgewise:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Let’s see if I can get this right: you’re American-born, French ancestry, bilingual in English and French – and speak Russian also, I believe – and according to the PR stuff I have here, your introduction to the work of the iconic French anarchist songwriter came via your professor father, as something of a literary exercise. And for that reason you weren’t particularly fond of Brassens as a kid, is that right?

Pierre de Gaillande: No. I was born in Paris, France to a French father and American mother. I was born with dual citizenship – we lived in Paris for the first seven years of my life. My first language was French, but my mother spoke English to me as a child and I could speak a little English when we moved to the states.

LCC: When did you start listening to Brassens purely for pleasure?

PDG: Brassens was always on in my house when we were growing up. It was part of the musical landscape of our home like the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Dubliners, the Kingston Trio and a multitude of other French singers. I always liked listening to Brassens. What I didn’t like was my father’s didactic and proprietary attitude towards everything French in general, and Brassens in particular. Which has changed, by the way: Brassens is a topic we definitely connect on these days.

LCC: The work of some French musical icons has insinuated itself into American culture: Piaf and Gainsbourg for example. Is there an explanation for why Brassens never caught on here, or anywhere else in the anglophone world as far as I can tell?

PDG: There are two reasons for this as far as I can tell. One is that the pleasure in Brassens is primarily lyrical. Without an understanding of the lyrics, at least half the point is gone. The other reason is that unlike Brel and Gainsbourg, Brassens never explored any new musical territory in the arrangements of his songs – he kept his arrangement to an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, his voice, and occasional lead guitar. He only used a lead guitarist live on certain television appearances, never on stage. Just an aside, Brassens’ guitarist for the last ten years of his career was Joel Favreau, who has agreed to come to New York in November to do a Brassens festival at Symphony Space, for which Bad Reputation will be the house band with a bunch of French singers. So this is an extremely proud occasion for me and a chance to come full circle.

So unless you really love this kind of folk guitar music, if you don’t speak French, there aren’t many other points of entry into Brassens’ music besides very catchy melodies and his rich voice. By contrast, Gainsbourg explored all kinds of musical territory, like rock, reggae, funk, and disco, and he pandered to an English-speaking crowd by dropping English in his lyrics constantly. Brassens just didn’t pander. You had to go to him, he wasn’t coming to you.

LCC: What is your motivation in putting out this record? It’s not like you’re riding a wave of Brassens success, or tapping into some vast cultural resonance, at least in this country…

PDG: It’s a lot of fun. And I think it is extremely culturally relevant. This country can definitely use some voices championing what Brassens stood for; a deep love of poetry, history, literary and intellectual achievement, a disdain for consumerism, fanaticism, and the sheep mentality in any form, and a morality based on humane common sense, not religion.

LCC: What would you say was the biggest challenge in translating Brassens? Contemporizing dated slang? Or attempting to maintain both the same rhyme and meter as the original French lyrics?

PDG: The biggest challenge was translating very specific French slang, and deciding when to make the meaning gibe with the original time period, 50s through the 70s, or when to make it sound current. And of course all of it had to rhyme and fit in the same number of syllables if possible. One little example: in the song Penelope the first line is “Toi l’epouse modele, le grillon du foyer.” I chose to translate that literally as “You, the cricket of the hearth; you, the ideal spouse.” As far as I know, “the cricket of the hearth” is not an expression in English, but to me it is such a graceful way of saying “housewife” that I chose to translate it literally. There were scores of decisions to make, and on many occasions I used a current English expression, sometimes I didn’t.

LCC: Brassens was kind of gangsta, he went for shock value every time. I know at least a few of his songs were banned in France. How much of that shock value were you able to maintain – or does any of that still have the capacity to shock, in the era of Fitty and L’il Wayne?

PDG: Brassens was a punk. He just didn’t care what “‘the public” thought of him. If you listen to the song The Pornographer on my cd, you’ll see I tried to leave in all the words that might get bleeped on the radio these days. Does anything shock anymore, I don’t know. What’s more shocking in Brassens is the subject matter; a 13 year old girl who tries to seduce a much older musician (Princess and the Troubadour), a nun who warms up a man’s penis because he has no arms (Don Juan), a marquise who gives a man crabs (Trumpets of Fortune and Fame) and on and on and on…

LCC: Brassens loved double entendres, and he was very good at them – as you are, in your own songwriting with the Snow and Melomane. In translating these songs, did you ever find yourself having to choose one level of meaning over another? How did you handle that?

PDG: Good question. Sometimes I had to compromise or improvise. Bear with me while I give you an example. There is a moment in Penelope where he says “Il n’y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un coeur/Qui bat la campagne et galope” which literally means, “There’s no reason here to whip a heart/Which beats a path into the fields at a gallop.” It’s actually a triple entendre. The first level of meaning is a play on words for “here’s no cause to whip a cat [fouetter un chat]” which basically means there’s no reason to freak out, you need to relax, but he changes it to “whip a heart” so that it fits with the next pun, which is “beating a path.” Now the heart is beating, and it is galloping like a horse in the fields (la campagne.) But “battre la campagne” also means to go on a war campaign. So there are three levels of meaning densely packed in to two lines.

So what I did was keep the heart beating motif, but instead of whipping a heart, I used “swinging a heart” as in “there’s not enough room in here to swing a cat.” This then connected nicely with the beating heart in the second half, “Beating a path to distant fields.” I sacrificed one expression (whipping a cat) and substituted an English one (swinging a cat). The whole project was full of these kinds of verbal gymnastics. It’s a game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

LCC: Above all – and I think this is the key to his success in France at least – Brassens is hilarious! But a lot of the humor is in the wordplay – it doesn’t translate. Literally. Or does it?

PDG: Some does, some doesn’t. I did my best to capture it. Brassens had about 200 songs in his catalogue, and some of the best ones are untranslatable, but there are many that do work, and that’s my mission. I think there are tons of hilarious moments on this CD.

LCC: The press release here says you’ve deliberately avoided trying to make rock music out of these songs, even to the extent of not utilizing drums on the album. I know that Brassens was not an enormous fan of rock, and that you’re trying to be purist about this. At the same time I can’t help thinking, this guy was pretty punk. You know, the eternal refusenik, he wouldn’t let anybody fuck with him. These songs would kick ass if you turned up the guitar, added more of a beat, brought the vocals up in the mix, don’t you think?

PDG: First off, the vocals are way up in the mix, just as they are in the original. I deliberately did not want to make a rock or “modern” version of Brassens. There is a great band in France called Brassens Not Dead that does hardcore thrash punk versions of Brassens, and they do a fantastic job, and they capture his punk spirit to a tee. There are also tons of crappy “modern versions” of Brassens in France, they are embarrassing and wrongheaded, at least to my ears. The best versions of his stick to the gypsy-jazz folk vibe that inspired him. I wanted this introduction to Brassens for English speaking people to be all about the lyrics. The music is there, and it is artfully executed and arranged by my fantastic band, but it just felt natural to stay away from the drums. The last seven albums I have made were rock albums, and once you start layering sounds and adding instruments, there’s no turning back. I needed to explore having the courage to make my voice the most prevalent sound on the album.

LCC: Can I continue playing devil’s advocate? Where do you get the idea that most Americans – who can’t even find France on a map, let alone have any awareness of who Georges Brassens is or why he might be worth discovering – would have the slightest interest in these songs? Or is there something here that might resonate with at least a cult audience?

PDG: Americans, or anyone else for that matter, can take it or leave it, it’s not up to me to make them like it. I’ve never made music with a concern for how it’s going to be received. Like all of my music, this started with me playing guitar and scribbling notes frantically, by myself in the middle of the night, completely absorbed in a fascinating pursuit. I think there are a lot of people out there who like a good melody attached to some really smart lyrics. They will enjoy this music if they want to, I can’t control that.

LCC: Your new album includes a cynical song about celebrity worship – talk about Brassens being years ahead of his time, huh?; a very funny one about being pussywhipped; a defiant, punkish one about staying true to oneself; at least one and maybe more that were banned in France; and the poignant outsider anthem Bad Reputation, the first song Brassens ever wrote, from which you take the name of the band. Do you have a favorite? Or is it one that’s not here, that you haven’t covered yet?

PDG: I have translated 23 songs, 13 of which are on this album. There are 3 or 4 that were really hard to leave off the album, including Poor Martin (Pauvre Martin), The Bistro (Le Bistro), and The Old Man (L’ancetre). They will be on future albums or singles. I also have two favorites that I’m beginning to simmer in my brainpan for future translation: “La Rose, la bouteille, et la poignee de main” (The Rose, The Bottle, and The Handshake, which is about how all three of those things are abandoned and then adopted by the narrator) and one called Hecatombe which is about a group of irate women murdering some policemen at an outdoor market.

LCC: I’m curious – besides you, does anybody else in the band speak French?

PDG: Quentin Jennings, who plays keyboards, charango and xylophone in Bad Reputation, is British, but speaks French and helped with some translation problems when I got stuck. Christian Bongers, our bassist, is German but has a pretty good handle on French.

Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation play the cd release show for the album on June 12 at the Bell House at 7:30 PM.

June 7, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments