[28 February 2008]
What does it say about the music industry when a supermodel like Carla Bruni takes more creative control of her album than top-draw pop artists like Britney Spears? Back in the old days when models or TV stars made records, there was usually some Svengali-like producer who would hire writers, record the tracks, and then plop the would-be recording star in front of a microphone. Considering Bruni has been derided in the press as an “alpha groupie” because of her involvement with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, you’d figure this CD would find her working with some hotshot producer and calling in heavy friends.
But you’d be wrong. Intriguing and surprisingly tuneful, No Promises is a disc that shows a clear artistic focus honed by Bruni herself, who wrote all the melodies and picked out poems to go with each one. Bruni may have come to the public’s attention as a model, but she was raised in a musical family, with a concert pianist mother and a classical composer stepfather. The Italian-born artist, who now makes her home in France (where she’s First Lady, as if you didn’t know), released her debut CD, “Quelqu’un m’a dit” in 2002. It was a hit in Europe and served as part of the soundtrack to the 2005 film Conversations with Other Women.
No Promises was released in Europe last May to nearly half a million sales, then put out on iTunes and sold via Barnes and Nobles beginning last August. This CD release marks its first official unveiling in the United States, and it’s not a stretch to assume Bruni’s record company may have held back its wide release because it’s so European sounding. Bruni not only sings with a heavy accent, but the musicians she employs—especially guitarist-producer Louis Beretignac—play with a classically-derived Old World touch.
The influences are fairly non-American as well, and will bring to mind such artists as Jane Birkin, Francoise Hardy, and even early Nico. Okay, so that’s really old school. The best recent comparison that can be made is with Russian model Milla Jovovich’s overlooked-but-excellent 1994 CD The Divine Comedy, where Jovovich surprised everyone with tuneful ethnic folk ballads. But since about three people have actually heard that album, I won’t draw the comparison out (for the record, it’s worth tracking down).
To prepare this recording, Bruni purportedly pow-wowed with another ex of Jagger’s, Marianne Faithful, to brainstorm ideas and select the poems (and, one suspects, do some dirt dishing on the Mickster). Bruni set the artistic bar way high when she and Faithful selected works by such poetic heavy hitters as William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker. Anyone who thinks it’s sacrilege to sing such works as Parker’s “Afternoon” or Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made” is advised to stay far, far away.
But as pop music, it works, because Bruni’s music is consistently tuneful and her raspy whisper of a voice blends well with the small acoustic ensemble. The opener, a rendition of Yeats’ “Those Dancing Days Are Gone”, breezes by with a lithe, almost funk beat and a candy-sweet chorus. A rare electric guitar line and slide guitar invigorate Dickinson’s “I Felt My Life with Both Hands”. Combined with Bruni’s voice, it gives the impression of an exotic chanteuse fronting the Rolling Stones circa 1971.
The CD’s title comes from Christina Rossetti’s luminous “Promises Like Pie Crust”, done up here as a sprightly ballad. Walter De La Mare’s “Autumn” gets a waltz-time tempo, as does Dickinson’s “I Went To Heaven”, the latter of which benefits from an arrangement that includes an accordion keyboard sound. Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made” is given a similar treatment, but it’s taken at a slower pace. When the melodies don’t work, the music gets by on atmospherics. No one would call Bruni a great singer, but she makes the most of her limited vocal palette with understated phrasing. Her diction could be better, but that’s easy to overlook when you consider she’s apparently fluent in three languages. Plus, the accent is enticing. There’s no obvious single, here, but art, not commerce, seems to be Bruni’s intention, and the lack of commercial pandering is refreshing.
Bruni also makes sure to cite her sources by including not only a lyric sheet, but also short biographical sketches of all the poets whose words she’s used. It’s part of a deluxe package that includes a cardboard gatefold replete with photos of Bruni in a short white nightie. Well what do you want—she was a model. You didn’t think there’d be no photos, did you?