Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris
(Thru: Shock Records)
It is a fact universally acknowledged that a francophone pop/folk chanteuse in search of critical acclaim will at some stage record an album of Edith Piaf songs. Nothing wrong with that — who wouldn’t want to sink their chops into the Piaf songbook? — but said chanteuse has to be careful. The two big questions are: has the pretender got the vocal chops to hold her own against the sui generis Sparrow, and can she bring something new to what is, at this stage, a pretty well-thumbed set of sheet music?
Enter Martha Wainwright and her album of Piaf songs due out November 13. As a big fan of Wainwright’s usual work, especially her first album, I was curious as to what she would do with this and I have to admit it is a bit of a triumph.
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Looking at the first of those two criteria I set out above — does she have the vocal chops to handle the Piaf songbook — the answer is well, yes, d’uh. Wainwright can sing most contemporary singers under the table and she combines that power with a gentleness of touch and an ear for subtle melody and harmony that comes from being born to a family of singers. If you want to know the power of that heritage, get hold of the Leonard Cohen tribute she, her mum and her aunty participated in a few years back and have a listen to the harmonies on their rendition of Winter Lady. Martha sings right in the middle of every note and her diction is probably only rivalled by another chanteuse who has tried her hand at the Piaf songbook, Ute Lemper.
None of this is to say that Wainwright sets out to replicate Edith’s singing. Her voice certainly isn’t the piss-and-sperm soaked instrument Piaf’s was, which means that while she matches Piaf’s power, she doesn’t bring the same sort of street grit to the performances. Which is just as well as far as I’m concerned: she’s a singer, not an impersonator.
As to the second criteria — how do you make fresh a songbook that has probably been done to death? — Wainwright solves this problem neatly by choosing songs that I suspect most fans of Piaf have never heard. The promotional material from Shock Records calls them “rare and acclaimed Edith Piaf songs”, though the emphasis should probably be on “rare”. The only one that is likely to be instantly recognisable is L’Accordioniste which Wainwright delivers pretty straight.
The rest are stylistically recognisable — the weeping accordion, the martial air often apparent in French cabaret, the theatricality, the sense of lives ruined, loves lost — and on the first few listens it is a little tempting to nod your head knowingly and say to yourself, well, I can see why these ones aren’t as well known as ones we do know, but I think it would be very unfair to dismiss them as somehow second rate. Sure, it’s a bit hard to live up to the standard of ‘La’Vie En Rose’, or ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, or ‘Milord’, but these are beautifully crafted songs based on strong melodies and Wainwright has unearthed, or at least, breathed new life into, at least a couple of tracks that deserve to stand with the best of Piaf.
In particular, track 11, ‘Sudain Une Vallee’ is stunning, and Wainwright sings it beautifully. Honestly, what a track. Tracks 1 and 2 are also great, ‘Le Foule’ and ‘Adieu Mon Coeur’. And while each of those is worth singling out, the standard is high throughout. I am so glad she chose this set rather one peppered with the usual suspects.
Wisely, too, the album was recorded live, in fact, it “was recorded over three intimate performances in New York’s Dixon Place Theatre in June.” So much of the success of this sort of music relies on not only that frission that comes from live performance but on a bunch of musicians who can handle the work, and the band she has assembled here is up to the task. No show-offs, just skillful players with the discretion and confidence to support the main instrument, the lead vocal.
This is a great album. What it represents in terms of artistic development is also amazing. Hard to imagine that this is the same singer, the same artist, who whined with righteous immaturity through BFMA on her first album.
So if that European chanteuse/cabaret thing is something you like, I can’t imagine that you aren’t going to want this album. Even if that is not your cup of absinthe, but you are a fan Martha Wainwright, I reckon this might be worth the effort.