Old World Decadence – Pierre De Gaillande sings George Brassens
By Pierre De Gaillande
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
The characters populating Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row have nothing on those brought to life in the songs of the French anarchist singer, George Brassens. The broken down idealists, pedophiles, and sad drunken pornographers who stumble through his melodies have informed the spirit of performers from Tom Waits to Leonard Cohen, but for many potential fans outside of Europe and Canada, the barrier of the French language has prevented access to his work. So, it was with a mixture of pleasure and trepidation that I first played Pierre De Gaillande’s English language versions of some of Brassen’s most famous songs.
Thankfully, Gaillande has proven himself more than up to the challenge of what must have been a daunting task of translation. Purists consider Brassen’s body of work in its original language to be sacred, and like certain fundamentalists who believe that the Koran should only be read in Arabic, many feel that nobody has any business altering a single word of Brassens’ original text. For, it’s one thing to render French words into English, but the cadence and phrasing of the languages are so different, I was worried that either Brassen’s rhythms or lyrical subtlety would be compromised. Amazingly, this is not the case and De Gaillande succeeds brilliantly in maintaining the rhyme scheme and meter of the original songs, thereby providing a perfect introduction the dark and often perverse world of Brassen’s songs.
Pierre De Gaillande grew up in the France and California, the child of a French father and an American mother. His father’s love of French literature followed him to America and Pierre was introduced at a young age to the work of Baudelaire and the songs of Brassens. Not surprisingly, he rejected his father’s recommendations and chose instead to spent his teenage years playing in punk and power pop bands. After moving to New York to continue working as an indie-artist with the Morning Glories, De Gaillande rediscovered the work of Brassens and set about the painstaking work of translating his songs into English. ‘Bad Reputation’ is the first release of a proposed series and contains enticing and disturbing versions of some of Brassens’ best known songs such as ‘To Die for your Ideas’, ‘Absolutely Nothing’, ‘the pornographer’ and ‘Bad Reputation.’
While the idea of listening to translations of atheist political rants and dark night of the soul trawls through the gutters of Paris may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, ‘Bad Reputation’ is an immensely likeable record. Firstly, De Gaillande’s voice and phrasing coupled with his sympathetic acoustic guitar provide the perfect setting for Brassens’ poetry. His voice rests somewhere between the confident drawl of Woody Guthrie and the faux Catholic regret of Leonard Cohen as he sings of farmers digging their own graves and the perverse shades of illicit love. Musically, De Gaillande honours Brassens’ Django Rhinehardt-inspired gypsy rhythms as they are brought to life with the help of New York based David Spinley and Tony Jarvis on clarinets, Quentin Jennings (flute,xylophone), Christian Bongers (Bass) and Gerald Menke (lap steel and dobro).
For lovers of great song writing in the tradition of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, the importance of the release of ‘Bad Reputation’ can’t be overestimated. Georges Brassens was one of the last century’s great artists and hopefully Pierre De Gaillande will help those outside of the French speaking world appreciate the depth of his artistry and compositional brilliance. This is a killer record, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that enough people will come under the dark spell that these songs cast and demand a follow up before too long.
This review also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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