By Charlotte Gainsbourg
'IRM' by Charlotte Gainsbourg is a strange album. Initially, it won't elicit much - or possibly - any reaction from you but, after a few listens, you'll be wondering how you ever managed to resist Gainsbourg's whimsical charms. Just don't stick this in your CD player expecting to be blown away.
Immediacy isn't the name of the game, as 'IRM' kicks off with the lullaby-soft 'Masters Hands.' Initial impressions are of a clunky, alt-folk bit of fluff, but after a while you begin to notice how Gainsbourg's voice teeters uniquely between sublime beauty, and outright eeriness. Everytime she breathes a line of the cryptic lyrics she has such a talent for, her music gains a bit of magic. 'Masters Hands' is a haunting, unsettling trip through a Brothers Grimm landscape that threatens to turn on you at any minute.
'Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes,' 'In The End' and 'Vanities' follow in a very similar vein. Album highlight, 'In The End' takes the album-opener's formula and polishes it to perfection. 'In The End' is a lump-in-the-throat whisper of music where Gainsbourg sighs and laments, and the lyrics brood. Gainsbourg is accompanied by a smattering of bright synths, the occasional bit of chord-work and a background rustle, but it's one of those rare songs that needs nothing more than the voice and the lyrics. A guaranteed tear-jerker.
There's usually something rather pretentious about an artist suddenly switching to another language on an otherwise English-only album, but Gainsbourg herself is French, so her slipping into French actually makes sense - but did she have to call this song 'Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes'? A big, fat, pretentious cliche of a title if ever there was one. Pretentiousness aside, 'Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes' is the darkest interpretations of Gainsbourg's softly-softly formula. Trudging along to a leaden beat and lashed with shiver-inducing strings, this song would be thoroughly depressing if it wasn't for Gainsbourg's melt-in-the-mouth vocals. Doom and gloom never sounded so sweet.
'Vanities' is Gainsbourg with a cinematic flourish, playing out like the atmosphere-soaked score to a bleak, urban indie-flick. Initially, it seems like 'Vanities' isn't going to bring anything new to the table, as Gainsbourg whispers over a distant glisten of chords, and gets the hairs standing up on the back of your neck in a what-we've-come-to-expect fashion. But then, Gainsbourg's voice falls away and the music slithers to the fore - proving once and for all that this album isn't all about Gainsbourg's goosebump-inducing voice. 'Vanities' tapers out rather than builds to a crescendo but, in this context, it's a fitting end. 'Vanities' successfully gives you the shivers.
But, whispering and eerie musical accompaniments isn't a sure-fire formula for a winning song. Album-closer 'The Collector' starts off as a piano-studded meander, with pockets of soulful crooning that somehow manage to sound simultaneously spine-tingling ghoulish and airily beautiful. Then it all goes terribly wrong, as 'The Collector' lapses into a snoozefest extended voiceover. For some unknown reason, a brazen, SNES-like synth arrangement is brought in for the closing few minutes of this voiceover and 'The Collector' goes from boring and beautiful, to just plain bizarre. An album low-point.
Lively moments are few and far between on 'IRM,' but there are a handful of songs with a pulse, although these are a hit-and-miss affair. Songs that see Gainsbourg successfully shake off that luxurious daze, are title track 'IRM,' previous single 'Heaven Can Wait,' 'Time of the Assassins' and 'Greenwich Mean Time.'
'IRM' and 'Heaven Can Wait' are both album highlights. 'Heaven Can Wait' is a folky sing-song and a welcome change of pace that's guaranteed to jolt you out of your stupor, while 'IRM' has an insidious shimmy perfectly accentuated by oddball sound effects. Gainsbourg teams these jazzed-up alt-pop rhythms with a childish rhyme about going to hospital for an EKG. A bright and breezy track, with a decidedly rotten core, this is a song to capture your imagination. 'Greenwich Mean Time' is another song where Gainsbourg is in a whimsical mood, weaving a demented rhyme through the twangy, alt-electronica beats. 'Greenwich Mean Time' is all about the lyrics and the vocals - and thankfully they are more than strong enough to carry the song.
The vocals also shine on 'Time of the Assassins,' which is surely a strong contender for Gainsbourg's next single. The twangy, acoustic balladry of the verses slips into a heady chorus that's richly layered with sighs and topped off with honeyed vocals. Good luck resisting this one.
But, once again Gainsbourg misses the mark on a few occasions. 'Dandelion' just about manages to keep from stepping over that 'pleasantly, undemandingly repetitive' mark and becoming boring. 'Me and Jane Doe' isn't quite so lucky. It's basically 'Heaven Can Wait' with great swathes cut out and replaced with strings of "oh-la-la-la-la" babbling that'll make you wonder whether Gainsbourg got halfway through this song and ran out of ideas.
So, we have an album that offers both aural gossamer and songs you can actually tap your feet to, but that isn't the entire story. Gainsbourg steps out of her comfort zone and tries something a little bit different on 'Voyage' and 'Trick Pony.'
'Trick Pony' is a slab of rock 'n roll sleaze that crunches along to a bass-soaked groove. It's a welcome change of pace, although it quickly works itself into a rut and makes no effort to get itself back out. Gainsbourg could have easily worked one or two additional ideas into this song. Meanwhile, 'Voyage' brings an exotic flavour to the 'IRM' experience. Imagine the rumble of tribal music, muddled up with dewy female vocals, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what 'Voyage' sounds like. One for the New Age crowd.
The first half of this album is much stronger than the second half. 'Masters Hands,' 'IRM' and 'In The End' see Gainsbourg perfect her own brand of twisted lullaby. When she nails it, this album is nothing short of magical, but when she misses the mark - 'The Collector,' 'Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes' - this album's beauty becomes unengaging. She also runs into difficulties when she tries to move beyond the airy-fairy act: both 'Trick Pony' and 'Me and Jane Doe' fall flat.
'IRM' is worth purchasing for its opening half, but Gainsbourg seems to be pedalling a niche sound, for a niche market, and the novelty wears off halfway through this album.