[26 March 2014]
Brigitte Fontaine was to modern chanson what Björk is to pop music. Though the French music artist still continues to this day to record fascinatingly unique and stylish compositions of pop music, her recordings were a true revelation back in the heydays of the “yeh-yeh” girl French pop of the ‘60s. Seen somewhat as the antithesis of Francoise Hardy (whose own rise to fame in pop music was the result of a number of breezy, radio-ready pop tunes), Fontaine’s personal approach to making music served to satiate her own hunger for the strange and extreme. Her music was grounded in the familiar realms of pop, but those realms were often invaded by a strain of foreign influences that came from around the world. As well, Fontaine was never really a stickler for logic; often, her compositions were based on the enigma of feelings inexpressible, forced out by the pen and mouth of a woman whose own volatile and exuberant emotions were beyond her control.
Fontaine’s 1968 release, Brigitte Fontaine Est… Folle (reissued by Superior Viaduct Records), would pretty much set up the artistic premises for the rest of her career, which were essentially freedom and folly within and outside of convention. Est…Folle was equal parts decadence and kitsch of the 1960s, sometimes employing an almost Brechtian approach to her version of cabaret jazz-pop. Fontaine intended to provoke, forcing listeners outside of their comfort zones, and she would often upend a fluid melody with a shriek, a yelp or a keening howl that would shatter the nerves. For the most part, Fontaine keeps it cool for Est… Folle and it is here especially that the listener learns the true command of range that she actually has. Much of the music takes its cues from the smart, chic pop of Serge Gainsbourg-penned tunes, but there is undeniably a strange, inscrutable twist in each of these numbers that gives the impression of holding up a Rembrandt to a funhouse mirror. The picture painted is beautiful but skewed. Something is always a little bit off.
The opening track, “Il Pleut”, a whimsical slice of orchestral blues-pop, features Fontaine’s most yearning vocal. Like the many tracks that follow on the album, it is also positively lush, full-bodied and sensual—a far cry from the minimalist, abstract designs she would explore on subsequent releases. Fontaine’s bewitching spells of song on this album conjure an epic sense of cinema, sweeping and enveloping orchestras that resonate with a lingering hum long after the numbers have finished. “Il Se Passe Des Choses”, one of her most romantic cries of melodrama ever recorded, is a bittersweet lament in which the artist sings of boredom and longing. It has the lambently warm feel of a Claude Lelouch film, the swell of strings rising and falling with the heaving sighs of a lonely homebody.
Elsewhere, Fontaine perfects a more playful expression of her avant-pop. “Eternelle” takes a dip at kitschy spy film soundtracks with a ring of bongos propelling the rhythm forward and a chorus of men comically barking in the background. The loose, tropical rhythms of “Blanche Neige” settle into a chilled groove disturbed only by the sampled shrieks of exotic birds ornamenting Fontaine’s rather laid back delivery.
Finally, the album closes out on a hush with “Cet Enfant Que Je T’Avais Fait”, a duet with singer Jacques Higelin. Far from the kooky, thirsty and mischievous pop she normally explores, the song finds Fontaine in a pensive mood, one that she would revisit from time to time throughout her career, albeit in a more irregular structure of song. Here, on the album’s final number, she just sounds enamoured by the whole process of simply singing.