Unlike her more well-known contemporaries Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, Brigitte Fontaine seemed to exist in a shadow world of French pop music. Following the release of her fairly straight-forward debut Est … Folle arranged by Jean Claude Vannier, Fontaine quickly detoured into the avant-garde, enlisting the help of free jazz collective the Art Ensemble of Chicago for her follow up, Comme a la Radio.
Having undergone such a radical sonic makeover in the space of a single year, one could only imagine what 1972’s self-titled release, reissued here by Superior Viaduct, held. The only album she released in the ‘70s credited solely to herself, Brigitte Fontaine feels perhaps even more transitional than Comme a la Radio. Leaving behind the larger ensemble and group formats explored on her previous releases, Fontaine here relies largely on the strength of her own voice and the emotive powers it conveys.
Amidst skeletal acoustic arrangements, Fontaine’s vocals swing wildly from a soothing coo to a blood-curdling shriek before settling back into a childlike sing-song. Not nearly as visceral as the more out-there vocal works of Yoko Ono or Diamanda Galas, Fontaine’s approach to her voice is that of gentle restraint: a calm at the center of the storm that, despite its comforting quality, is not to be trusted. Whereas before the focus was more on songs (Est … Folle) and the juxtaposition of seemingly dissimilar styles (Comme a la Radio), Brigitte Fontaine seems less interested in the notion of songs and their potential and more invested in the sounds themselves, using the basic notion of song structure as a starting point from which to further devolve and explore music at its basest elements.
Functioning more as a performance art piece than a cohesive album, Brigitte Fontaine features ideas of songs performed by Fontaine with the occasional assistance of long-time collaborator Areski, as well as a day-in-the-life field snippets (“Familie”) and monologues (“Premier Julliet”). With this minimalist backing and strict avoidance of traditional album structure, Brigitte Fontaine often comes across as a little forced and very much of its time. In looking to push the creative envelope, it often doubles back on itself.
The initially compelling “L’Auberge”, with its stately strings and medieval melodic figure, eventually collapses under its own weight as Fontaine alternates between some truly lovely melodies and a “power to the people” recitation. It’s a fairly interesting juxtaposition at first but, at more than five minutes, quickly wears out its welcome, finding little more to say and even less to explore than the basic components sketched out within the track’s opening minute.
With “Moi Aussi”, Fontaine cedes vocal space to Areski for the first and, with the exception of a brief spoken introduction on “Eros”, only time on the album. Rather than proving a distraction, his hypnotically repetitive vocal recitation, turning the syllables over and over in his mouth, proves the perfect foil for Fontaine’s sing-song vocal approach. The lack of any tonal reference point aside from the occasional overtones produced by the hand drum lends “Moi Aussi” an almost unsettlingly intimate feel that, given the nature of the music itself, could quickly result in complete and total chaos. Fortunately that proves not to be the case as the two compliment each other in a manner akin to that of an avant-garde Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra pairing.
“Le Dragon” features Fontaine’s vocals paired with an acoustic guitar, occasional double bass and insistent, loose-skinned hand drum played as though the drummer’s fingers were attempting a frantic escape from the titular creature. When it does enter, the bass shadows the guitar figure, occasionally harmonizing, occasionally doubling, and disappearing just as quickly as it appeared. This lack of adherence to the traditional notion of song arranging makes for an interesting listen and places the focus squarely where it should be on Fontaine’s voice.
Employing her background in acting, “Une Minute Cinquante-Cinq” features Fontaine singing in a lovely round with herself that gradually gives way to the sound of her crying and pleading. As her sobs continue and escalate, the round continues unabated, making for an unsettlingly disorienting listening experience made all the more so by the sudden cessation of both the crying and singing only to be replaced by a short, halting piano figure over which Fontaine sings in English.
“Ou Vas-Tu Petit Garcon” is the only example here that carries over from her work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Composed entirely of bleating saxophones skittering in a round and Fontaine’s schoolyard-style vocal chant, you can practically see her sitting cross-legged, clapping her hands along with the atonal sounds emanating from behind her. At nearly four minutes, it can be a fairly challenging listen as it offers no relief from the aural onslaught and little to no variation in its hypnotic repetition.
Closing track “Merry-Go-Round” features dueling atonal, wandering guitars, alternately played forwards and backwards, while Fontaine employs a childlike, ye-ye girl vocal style. It is yet another odd juxtaposition that the inimitable Fontaine carries out with aplomb. The vocals, like the guitars themselves, tend to wander in a somewhat frameless manner with wavering pitch and only the faintest traces of discernible structure, yet manage to fit the context. Overall, Brigitte Fontaine proves to be a somewhat hallucinatory, disorienting listen yet, compared to the album which precedes it and those that were to come later, perhaps the best point of entry for those looking to explore this fascinating, criminally underappreciated artist.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.