With a rep for being a droll smut-peddler who reveled in misogynistic objectification, Serge Gainsbourg was an unlikely savior for the female singers of sixties French pop. Yet, that is basically what he did when he gave the cheerfully innocent France Gall some dirty double-entendres to chirp and played into Francois Hardy’s darker persona with songs of melancholic doubt that revealed the poetic complexities of his writing.
Ace Records’ new compilation, Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg, gives ample airing to the variety in the man’s music as voiced by some of the many women who’ve interpreted it. For such singers, doing a Serge song was a fast track to scoring a hit and a bit of edge. Not every singer on this 25-track compilation fully grasps the Gainsbourg way, and this can be particularly apparent when they cover songs he also recorded in his sneering, Gitanes-stained croon. France Gall’s hit version of “Les Sucettes” is a Disney soundtrack cast-off compared to Serge’s sexed-up psychedelia. That probably only makes her version more subversive, which no doubt delighted the composer. However, the very best tracks are the ones on which the artists slip into more appropriate character. Brigitte Bardot is, of course, the very best Gainsbourg interpreter, infusing way ahead-of-their time rockers like “Harley Davidson” and “Contact” with the fizz he never would have mustered. April March delivers the wiry rocker “Laisse Tomber les Filles” with attitudinal glee. Marianne Faithfull sings the regretful “Hier Ou Demain” with a stiff upper lip that can’t mask the sadness underneath it. The cracks in Jane Birkin’s limited voice draw the eroticism out of “Jane B.” as they did with her duet and Serge’s duet on “Je t'aime… Moi Non Plus”. That most famous/infamous of Gainsbourg records is not included here, keeping the all-female voice pure.
The only time Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg really falters is when it stumbles into the eighties with tracks such as Isabelle Adjani’s “Pull Marine” and Birkin’s “Con C’est Con Ces Consequences”, both utterly sabotaged by the decade’s horrid pop production follies. These moments almost made me wish this album’s subtitle had been The Sixties Songs of Serge Gainsbourg, but then we wouldn’t have gotten that amazing April March track.
Get Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg at Amazon.com here: