Pierre de Gaillande brings Georges Brassens to English speakers in a selection of faithful translations and covers.
Pierre de Gaillande has taken on an impossible task. With Bad Reputation, he attempts to translate the beloved French songwriter/poet Georges Brassens and make his songs available for an English-speaking audience. If you speak French, then there is really no point in straying from the original; these are pretty straight covers, only with more instruments. If you don't speak French, but are a Francophile, then you probably listen to Brassens anyway -- if only to seem Euro. So de Gaillande's audience is left in between. Introducing, Georges Brassens…
Georges Brassens was a celebrated French songwriter-poet who made his name first in the '50s with songs that bluntly approached sexuality, hypocrisy, and mortality. One of his most famous songs, "Gorille" -- which does not appear on de Gailliande's album -- depicts the raunchy female response to a well-endowed gorilla who escapes and ends up raping a judge. The frankness of the song got it banned. Brassens’ response to his notoriety, which de Gaillande does cover, is "The Pornographer", where he describes himself as "le pornographe du phonograph"; de Gaillande kind of lamely translates this as "the pornographer of the phonograph, sir" to keep the rhyme and cognate. On this album, de Gaillande focuses on Brassens' poetic attempt to deal with the persona his fame gave him. Without a critical context, Brassens might come off to the new listener as a bawdy poet who is out to shock. Delivered to an American audience in particular, de Gaillande's picture of Brassens will probably make you think the usually useless thought, "I didn’t know people could say that back then".
Translating Brassens into English is a bit like trying to translate Bob Dylan into French. It's not a matter just of insistence on rhyme in the songs that provides a barrier, but there's a smart wordiness that is apt to suffer in transition. De Gaillande does a surprisingly good job in keeping the vividness of Brassens' language, while also remaining within the confines of rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. (Only one glaring mistranslation, an idiomatic error, translating gorge as throat when it should be "breast"). As this Dylan comparison suggested itself to me, I realized how few American pop icons could also be considered "poets". Brassens, despite some run-ins for obscenity, was regarded in his lifetime as a poet and even received an award from the Académie Française. It's an interesting example of the intersection of high and low culture, a place that is the essence of rock and roll, if not of the American image of the French. This is why de Gaillande's project to bring Brassens to an Anglophone audience is worthwhile. Despite his extreme Frenchness and his distance from pop sounds, Brassens embodies a rebellious attitude that is part of the rock attitude.
The main hitch in de Gaillande's undertaking is that sometimes he ends up going in the direction of camp, which is not helped by the fact that he focuses on Brassens' bawdy side. De Gaillande brings out a campiness in Brassens that I had not picked up on before. Brassens had a deliberately antiquated sound. But in the Americanized version -- perhaps because of the way nostalgia is so often packaged for us -- the old instrumentation can come across "cutesy". De Gaillande's version of Brassens is at its campiest on "Ninety-five Percent", a song that discusses the inequality of passions in sex: "Ninety-five percent of the time / Fucking bores her out of her mind". De Gaillande, in his liner notes to the lyrics, explains that this song is deviously feminist, although it might seem to come from the male point of view. However, the cheesy American-style '50s backing vocals that echo him on the chorus, singing "all the time", seem to cheapen the satire.
The songs themselves often depict a libidinous and world-weary poet in an environment overcrowded by grotesques. What mutes the camp in Brassens' own versions is the husky gruffness of his voice and his beautiful delivery. He always sounds like the product of the experiences he narrates in his songs, the kind of person that is somehow always an old man. De Gaillande, by comparison, comes off younger. He's an indie kid now matured, the product of the Brooklyn folk-rock scene (Morning Glories and Melomane). His voice has a flat Leonard Cohen quality, which lacks the personality of Brassens. Often he sounds like he is reciting something that he didn't write himself, which of course is true. Maybe de Gaillande is right to distance himself from the persona of the songs he chose, though he does have a moustache on the album cover in true Brassens style. But his delivery seems to wear quotations marks around it, like he is presenting us with something. This slight off-note doesn't quash his eagerness and enthusiasm, which in itself is infectious.
The band is great; the songs are tight and well arranged, if more elaborate than Brassens' originals, which normally consist of only a couple of acoustic guitars. Perhaps the best song on the album, in its own right, is de Gaillande's duet with Israeli-French star Keren Ann on "To Die for Your Ideas". This song's message about ideological hypocrisy seems especially timely. It is one of the few songs from de Gaillande's selection that doesn't focus on sex, for whatever that's worth, though it is still in the same vein of social satire. The success of this version comes from the way the two voices meld together. Keren Ann has an old-time throaty chanteuse voice that nicely complements de Gaillande's indie chant-like delivery and rounds off the edges. Here he seems to find his own voice and that allows us somehow to see Brassens more clearly.
This project was obviously a kind of passion for de Gaillande. The packaging is wonderful and thorough: full lyrics with de Gaillande's comments on translating each song, as well as a few interesting illustrations to go along. His passion can't exactly express itself in the singing of these songs since they are so self-consciously critical. Still, something of the joviality of Brassens is lost in de Gaillande's renditions. Nonetheless, this album is a great homage. It's unclear whether Brassens will be able to find an Anglophone development of his style the way Jacques Brel did in the likes of Scott Walker, David Bowie, and so on. But his intelligence can do no harm as a diagnosis of ever-present hypocrisy in society and as a reminder that what we think and feel has been so masterfully and shamelessly expressed before.