Sunday, November 6, 2011

Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson on LP

If I'm a year late in reviewing the awesome LP reissue of Jim Sullivan's UFO from Light in the Attic Records, I'm two years late in getting Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson from the same folks. I almost grabbed the CD at Waterloo Records here in Austin a few months ago, but a little voice told me to hold out for the vinyl. As a result, the idea of owning this legendary album slipped away, and I didn't think about it again until the other day when I found an new, sealed LP at End of an Ear Records, just down the street from Waterloo. It was between this and She & Him's new Xmas LP, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I hate Christmas songs more than I love Zooey Deschanel. Melody Nelson it was, and I know now that I made the right choice.

If you're not familiar with this 1971 concept album, it's considered Gainsbourg's masterpiece--even though it flopped when first released (an all-too familiar theme in the arts when you think about it). In less than 28 minutes, Serge tells the story of a bored 40-year-old man who hits a teenage girl riding a bike while cruising around in his Rolls. Tu t'appelles comment? he asks. Melody. Melody comment? Melody Nelson. Before you know it, Serge has taken her to a sleazy hotel and has deflowered her. Then she jumps on a flight to Sunderland but her 707 crashes in the jungle of New Guinea. That's a lot of melodrama in less than half an hour, but it's told in a way that's very poetic, very sexual and very melancholic.

When Light in the Attic reissued this two years ago, however, it was the first time it had been released to the US--with the lyrics in both French and English. Until then, you had to know French very well, and Gainsbourge's half-whispered and half-muttered French even better, to know the whole story. Once translated, the extraordinary lyrics begin to rise above the slightly sordid plot:

Adrift on the currents have you already touched?
Those bright corals of the Guinean Coast
Where indiginous magicians act in vain
Who still hope for smashed up planes

The music, of course, has to be equally special when you think about the fact that hipsters have loved this album for almost forty years without knowing all or even most of the words. It takes a few listens to really dig in; the tracks sound like typical 1971 Euro-grooves with funky bass lines, distant and scattered drumming and a guitar that sounds relaxed but ever vigilant. It's dated on the surface, but at the same time it's played with the skill and the textures that only come from the best session musicians available.

And then the orchestra kicks in. Much has been said about the influence of Melody Nelson on Beck's Sea Change, and once you listen to the older album you'll be amazed at how close "Paper Tiger" comes to Gainsbourg's original vision, and what a wonderful homage it is. The soul of this album resides in the string arrangements and the way the disparate pieces come together and float beneath Gainsbourg's voice.

That brings me to the only disappointment I have with this album: Serge's voice is very front and center in the mix, and the band is too far in the background. You're tempted to turn up the volume to hear all the subtleties in the music, only to be overwhelmed with Gainsbourg's immense, God-like French booming over your speakers. I wouldn't mind a little equalizing for once.

That said, this is a hell of an LP, and a hell of a pressing. I was a tiny bit disappointed in the sound quality of the Jim Sullivan LP; they didn't find the original masters and had to deal with a subpar copy. The sound quality here, however, is fantastic, and the 180-gram pressing is very, very quiet. Once again, Light in the Attic comes through by charging $20--not $30 or $50--for a great remaster with great packaging. I need to start ordering their entire catalog now, instead of waiting a year or two to discover what everyone else already knows.

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