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"Stage Whisper"

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Stage Whisper
30 January 2012, 07:58 Written by Alex Wisgard

After two critically adored and cultishly worshipped albums, a rarities and live double album may not be the wisest career move for Madame Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose musical career has never quite achieved the same footing as her filmic forays. As enigmatic oozing from a pair of headphones as on a wide screen, her reluctance to be the centre of attention makes her even more alluring as a performer – a wisp of a woman with an inimitable accent and the most commanding non-presence one could affect.

Stage Whisper‘s first half compiles a handful of Beck-guided tracks left on the cutting-room floor from the IRM sessions, and four one-offs with the great (Connan Mockasin), the good (Villagers) and Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink. From the former camp, we have the baroque ‘White Telephone’, a stunning low-key ballad, and the slinky vintage-sounding electro of ‘Paradisco’, which betrays the influence of its producer’s beloved INXS. Yes, really. The songs are interesting – oddly, more commercial and, on ‘Hold the Rain’, with a distinct feel of Modern Guilt vintage Beck – but don’t quite have the same edge as those that made the cut on her third album proper.

The other collaborations are just as fine; even aforementioned Noah and the Whale contribution ‘Got to Let Go’ manages to keep sufficiently under the radar to retain its charm – at least until Fink himself pops up for a bleary-eyed verse. However, all of the outtakes featured here pale in comparison to disc one’s closing track, the Conor O’Brian-penned ‘Memoir’: a shuffling stunner whose lyric hinges on its chorus – “I might as well be anyone at all” – as perfect a summary of Gainsbourg’s shapeshifting talents as any.

The live disc actually turns out to be a pleasant surprise, in spite of the set’s self-deprecating title. While far from the most charismatic performer on the planet, many of the selections from Gainsbourg’s back catalogue work surprisingly well in a live setting. The atmospherics of ’5:55′ are torn apart by a tight six-piece backing band, ‘AF607105′ boasts the most assured vocal performance she has yet released, while ‘The Operation’ makes you wonder what would happened if she allowed herself and her band to rock out more often.

Sadly, IRM‘s more Beck-heavy moments fall somewhat flat. The title track doesn’t work half as well without the album version’s claustrophobic production, while the jaunty ‘Heaven Can Wait’ is simply too slight without its co-writer’s voice lurking in the wings. Luckily, a gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’ gives Gainsbourg a chance to show the crowd just how calmly impressive she can be, delicately breathing new life onto some of Dylan’s more tired lyrics in a way that manages to be respectful, but not over-reverent – much like the excitable audience captured during these performances.

All in all, Stage Whisper makes for an enjoyable deck-clearing exercise. It’s far from essential, but as a way to put a cap on the eventful campaign for her best album yet, it couldn’t be better. It’s certainly not one for a newcomer to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s material, but those who have already investigated her work should prick up an ear, and her dedicated fans (and by now, there deserve to be a fair few) will be in heaven.

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