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Mick Harvey
Intoxicated Man / Pink Elephants (Reissues) Jeremy Allen , April 4th, 2014 18:54

It's mid-90's Berlin and Australian guitarist Mick Harvey - having recently left Crime And The City Solution - suddenly finds he has some time on his hands. Not for long. A mixtape is thrust into his hand by local Frenchman and jobbing actor Olivier Picot, and soon Harvey is awakened to the sounds of the then recently departed dipsomaniac poet, lothario and inveterate smoker Serge Gainsbourg. Sure, Mick has heard 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' before - who hasn't? - but immersing himself in the collection compiled by Olivier, he discovers what seems like a whole new vocabulary of genius. Already revered in the French speaking world but a bit of a joke in the Anglosphere - a joke, it turns out, based on observational prejudice with no contextualisation in the temporal progression leading up to the punchline - Mick decides to do his bit.

And so he sets out with a missionary zeal to right wrongs and vigorously translate from French to English a wealth of Serge classics in the downtime he has when Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds aren't active. Two albums arrive in quick succession in 1995 and 1997, featuring 33 versions of the chansons so beloved in France, with one song - the title track of 'Pink Elephants' - an homage to Gainsbourg written with orchestral arranger, Tricatel label boss and Parisian man-about-town Bertrand Burgalat. Inevitably some clever wordplay is lost, but Mick's fearlessly pragmatic approach does justice to a revered cannon, from the infamous aforementioned classic and albatross, 'Je t'aime...' (called 'I Love You… Nor Do I' here) to lesser known numbers like 'Sex Shop'.

The scope of songs covered is vast, going all the way back to 1958's jazzy Du Chant à La Une!... album, right up to the punch-drunk and unfocused You're Under Arrest in 1987, with even a rousing Brigitte Bardot cover of 'Harley Davidson' thrown in for good measure. If it's obscure you're after then Mick's your man, with the little known 'Quand Mon 6.35 Me Fait Les Yeux Doux' covered here and with a better title too ('The Barrel Of My 45'), while any Gainsbourg standard you can pretty much think of is present, sometimes with the help of Anita Lane as a surrogate Jane Birkin; 'La Javanaise, 'Le Poinçonneur De Lilas' and tracks from 'Histoire De Melody Nelson' are all accounted for, as is 'Bonnie & Clyde', 'Chanson Pour Un Con', 'L'anamour' and 'Sous Le Soleil Exactement'. But the question is, "est-il bon?" The answer? "Absolument."

Harvey often brings the same pragmatism to the way the music is arranged, and on a track like '69 Année Érotique' he more or less keeps the accompaniment as it was, while on 'Initials B.B.' he even steals the soaring string section that Gainsbourg himself swiped from the Dvořák original. At this juncture you might ask 'what's the point?' and that would certainly be a more pertinent question than it was in 1995, but then there are moments - such as 'Song Of Slurs' ('La Chanson De Slogan') where Anita Lane's tackling of the words an octave down from Jane Birkin's original is actually preferable and far less painful. It's fair to say though that the tracks that are reworked or rethought are the most rewarding.

'Lemon Incest', stripped of the beat that brought Chopin kicking and screaming into the 80s whether he liked it or not, is strangely plaintive and well worth repeated listens. 'Comic Strip' cleverly replaces the onomatopoeia with simulated sounds, and has a similar groove to 'Red Right Hand'. And Mick's band's take on the spirit of the mid-60s, on tracks like 'Ford Mustang', 'Chatterton' and 'La Torrey Canyon' are effusively celebratory and in keeping with the times, and they capture the simplicity of the period too.  

It's fair to say that the wrongs Mick Harvey set out to right have contributed to the ever-rising visibility of Serge as icon in the English-speaking world and possibly helped to subdue some of the misconceptions too, and whether or not this is a musical gateway to another glittering universe, it can still be enjoyed by Gainsbourg devotees and those new to his work as well. As an Anglophonic entry point - which was the initial intention - this re-release is the perfect preface to the stunning oeuvre of the sloshed genius.

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