French music in English – mais oui

Mick Harvey.

France has been in the news recently.

Not only have they had an election that thankfully rejected their very own far-right Trumpian populist but for a while they really seemed to have it in for various All Blacks, having the temerity to arrest them for such trifling matters as driving drunk and buying cocaine. What's the world coming to when a dedicated rugby player can't relax of an evening with a few quiet lines of blow?

Since I spurn the white powder, my main attraction to France comes from the music. Hang on. I mean the music and the food. Oh, and the wine of course. Music, food and wine, not a bad trifecta. But this week we'll skip the Chateauneuf du Pape and stick with music.

Last year I wrote about my all-time favourite French singer/songwriter, the inimitable Serge Gainsbourg. At the time I stressed the many scandals in his very colourful life as I wondered whether anyone would be interested in someone who sang exclusively in a foreign language. So I was dead chuffed a few weeks ago when I ran into ‘Monsieur Moustache', a local French gentleman easily identifiable for obvious reasons.
He, it turns out, is also a big Serge fan and really enjoyed the article. That pretty much made it worthwhile. But how to share this musical love with non-French speakers? The answer comes in the form of Australian musician Mick Harvey.

(Tangent - musical moustaches: Monsieur Moustache is unconnected to the Nirvana song Mr Moustache; he's also unconnected to the fact that venerable local musician Robbie Laven plays French Gypsy jazz with “‘Moustache' guitar picks that cost $40 each!)

The Legendary Mick Harvey

Mick Harvey used to be play drums for Nick Cave's Bad Seeds and, before that, guitar for The Birthday Party; in Australia he's pretty much a legend. And this year he released his fourth volume of Serge Gainsbourg songs, translated into English.

Harvey started this epic labour of love back in 1995 with the album ‘Intoxicated Man', following it two years later with ‘Pink Elephants'. They are extraordinary pieces of work; Harvey insisted the translations keep the metre, rhyming structure and meaning accurate, a nigh-on impossible task when translating poetry or lyrics.

Musically he took a broader path. Serge was known for working with a series of France's most respected arrangers and many of his original recordings contain ground-breaking musical arrangements, be it the soaring strings of his late 60s ‘Initials BB' (about his scandalous affair with Brigitte Bardot) or the influential nascent acid jazz of his ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson' concept album.

Mick Harvey recreates some of these exactly and completely rearranges others, making for a modern spin on classic material, a contemporary yet retro nod to days when music seemed more colourful and theatrical.

Two More Volumes

Now he has returned to the project. Last year saw the release of ‘Delerium Tremens', as Harvey filled in some of the gaps left by his two early volumes, highlights being an effervescent romp through ‘Coffee Colour' and a stately take on ‘The Decadence'. He also took on five songs from the soundtrack of the film ‘Anna', for which Serge provided music.

But that was just the beginning. Earlier this year a second new album arrived, ‘Intoxicated Women'. All the sets have featured women collaborators on songs - as did Serge's originals, often sung with Bardot, Jane Birkin and others - and this is no exception, with several women fronting or dueting with Harvey, who these days principally plays Hammond organ.

I'm guessing that Mick Harvey only records these songs when someone (often him) manages to finally translate them properly and it's a treat to now have English versions of ‘Prevert's Song' and ‘God Smokes Havanas', but the true gem is his take on the legendary finale from the ‘Melody Nelson' album, ‘Cargo Cult', an epic closer for a playful, varied Serge collection.

All this probably means nothing to you. It's kinda French after all. But for anyone wanting to take a leap of faith I'd suggest approaching these in the order they were released. Keep an open mind and you will find it joyfully expanded with each listen.



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