Music

Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire De Melody Nelson

After 38 years the chilled orchestral-funk study of erotic obsession gets a U.S. release.


Serge Gainsbourg

Histoire de Melody Nelson

Contributors: Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Claude Vannier, Jane Birkin, Vic Flick, Big Jim Sullivan, Herbie Flowers, Douglas Wright
Label: Light in the Attic
First date: 1971
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2009-03-24
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Serge Gainsbourg was born in France to Russian parents. His classic album Histoire De Melody Nelson is an ode to the lure of virgin beauty, similar in focus to a work of another Russian, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The record made little waves at the time of its original 1971 release, but fulfilled a creative promise Gainsbourg had made to Jane Birkin.

Gainsbourg’s reputation as pop music agent provocateur and effortless womanizer will be familiar to anyone who has heard any of his classic singles such as “Je t’aime”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and “Soixant'neuf année érotique”. He and Birkin met on the set of the movie Slogan and initially didn’t hit it off. Gainsbourg was fresh from a break-up with Brigitte Bardot. Birkin, playing the role for which he had recommended another, detested what she thought was his sarcastic arrogance. After a frank meeting, a slight thaw began but her feelings did not turn toward affection until he asked her to dance and trod all over her feet. She realized that he wasn’t Mr. Cool but was actually shy and humorous. The story goes that they booked into his usual hotel room but he fell asleep and she slipped out, bought the 45 record they’d been dancing to, and left it between his upturned toes. Whether two tracks from Histoire De Melody Nelson (“Valse de Melody” and “Le Hotel Particular”) reference that particular incident, only Gainsbourg will know for sure. What is clear is that Gainsbourg promised Birkin this music and apparently pondered for two years before writing it in eight days.

There are several factors which together make this an album of extraordinarily masterful music. The use of some legendary UK session musicians is one integral piece. We all know the term “legend” is overused, and to some extent Vic Flick, Big Jim Sullivan, and Herbie Flowers remain invisible heroes. So, from their vast credits let’s consider just a few examples. As a member of the John Barry Seven (along with Melody Nelson drummer Douglas Wright) Flick’s guitar dominates the original James Bond theme. Similarly, it isn’t a stretch to say that Herbie Flowers’ bass playing makes Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Big Jim Sullivan played rhythm guitar on literally thousands of hit records, everything from the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” to Marianne Faithful’s “As Tears Go By” and still found time to give guitar lessons to Jimmy Page and Steve Howe. These are the guys who could play whatever was required, with no fuss or ego, and their individual skill and collaborative inspiration gives Histoire de Melody Nelson a safety net of total conviction.

But there’s more going on here than super-tight musicianship. There is the significant matter of the orchestral and choral elements, superbly and sparingly placed for stunning contrast and power. The man responsible, Jean-Claude Vannier, arranged much of Serge Gainsbourg’s music and also to be highly recommended is his own release L'Enfant Assassin des Mouches from these same sessions: a wordless psychedelic masterpiece inspired by something Gainsbourg wrote about a child killing flies. In 2006, Vannier and the session boys re-collaborated on several performances of Histoire de Melody Nelson with vocal help from Jarvis Cocker, Laetitia Sadler, and others.

Serge Gainsbourg was the missing ingredient in the recent concert performances, and without him all the arrangements and superb playing on this album would be for naught. His vocals on Melody Nelson evoke feverish, brooding lechery, but are also adroit and romantic. In short: this is the most consistently convincing work of his life, conveying fluctuating moods against a breadth of style with outbreaks of fuzz guitar, one or two bars of blues piano, briefly sweeping strings, light-headed pop bliss, funky eroticism, and a sense of impending doom.

Two extraordinary seven-minute tracks open and close the record. In a sense they are mirror images, but whereas “Melody” sets a mood of sexual obsession to suitably lustful groove, “Culte Cargo” is somehow mournful and haunted, with Gainsbourg sounding as if he’s condemned to be a worshipful slave to the rhythm of the memory of Melody. Both pieces are as close as we’ll ever get to hearing “Serge Runs the Voodoo Down” and together they make up half the album's 28-minute running time. That might seem short change by today’s overextended standards, whereby artists with little to say nevertheless take 78 minutes to do so. But since this is the story of a brief unforgettable encounter, the economy is a perfect fit and I’m hard pushed to think of a half hour of more consistently thrilling listening. The tale itself is of life-changing accidents, “the spirit of ecstasy” and the joy and mental turmoil of love. Jane Birkin is on the cover dressed only in blue jeans holding a cuddly toy she would later place in Gainsbourg’s coffin; it makes my back ache just watching her dance in the accompanying videos. When her underrated voice occasionally punctuates the music, it conveys freshness and innocence as only she can. She responds perfectly to Gainsbourg’s questioning calls and her brief giggles and squeals are almost as perfect as the “Owwws!” on many a James Brown cut!

This is a first US release of Histoire de Melody Nelson, re-mastered from the original tapes, complete with a 40-page booklet containing an interview with Serge Gainsbourg and lyric translations. This is genre-defying music, but anyone with an interest in hearing a blueprint for trip hop or a master class in the depiction of desire in pop music, should be sure to listen to this mysterious, timeless, contradictory album. Je t’aime …me neither.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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