Dead Belgian

No-one’s going to knock any spreading of the fabulous songs of Jacques Brel but it will come in for plenty of “if only” and “why did they….” type geeky moans because every tiny slip in proselytising Brel’s work is a little further to go on the journey to wider recognition.

Well known for songs like Next, If You Go Away, Amsterdam and Seasons in the sun, his canon has been picked at by cabaret singers, pop stars, chicken in a basket club belters and some cult heroes. Following his work can lead to all sorts of new discoveries. Me, I knew Julian Cope rated him so I checked out Marc Almond’s versions which lead me to Scott Walker’s versions and Scott’s superb solo work. And so on. The available translations, mostly by Mort Shuman are fine but dated and much more could have been done with, for example, Le Moribund (The Dying Man), translated into Rod McKuen’s cloying Seasons In The Sun. The original is a good deal snarkier. The band have chosen to sing some songs in French but provide English translations by the accordionist. On the evidence of the lyric booklet, I wish they had used them, since they do an excellent job. Their translation of Ne Me Quitte Pas (which they sing in French) beats the commonly heard version which, to be fair is a co-write by McKuen rather than a translation. Brel sings in French, we don’t need more French versions, we need them for an English audience.

Brel spat, rumbled and machine-gunned the lyrics in a theatrical display. It reminds me of a night I spent in a back street cabaret in Paris with local artistes doing their own work, understanding little literally but moved by the performances themselves. Everyone else must pick their own tone to work with; Dead Belgian have gone for a stripped-down punky folk – like Bellowhead if there were only four in the band. The result is speedy, perky, spirited, full of excitement. Fionnuala Dorrity chews and spits out lyrics while ukulele, sax and accordion pound out a backing. The atmosphere is a lot like The Pogues’ first album.

Madeleine gets sped up and raced through, Next has Alex Harvey’s over-the-top Glaswegian tranny threatening atmosphere removed and replaced with something new. It remains the best song about ennui and gonorrhoea ever written…. Ne Me Quitte Pas eschews the Shirley Bassey approach for something plainer with more emphasis on the repetitive longings of the about-to-be-spurned lover. La Haine should be much better known, sung with a calmness that belies the pure hate within. Everyone who fancies themselves as a singer-actor has sung Amsterdam, even Bowie. Fionnuala’s Gallic wobble draws out the drama of the vignette. Les Bourgeois is in French and is a classic bit of cabaret story-song-social-comment. I’d have preferred to hear it introduced to the Anglophones in English, like Tom Robinson and Robb Johnson. Le Moribund is also in French and leaving aside my cavils about translation, the performance is exceptional. As light as air, bouncing lightly on percussive clip-clops, the vocals snarl before long and go through the sarcasm like a lawnmower, leaving Terry Jacks’ sordid sentimentality choking on its dust. Jacky is a great swinger so Dead Belgian strip it down to an accordion and horn-driven chugging waltz. They make a couple of relevant and worthwhile changes to Shuman’s translation, which favoured smoothness over meaning. Jaures is a litany that inspires a call to arms; the band treat it gently. My Death is a grand old cabaret favourite and the band use it as a send off – pounding it out and leaving me wanting more.

This is an impressive and welcome debut, with the caveat that Brel needs more English performances of the less well known songs. I can’t help but feel there is a small but eager audience for that and the scope to draw in new listeners. If you don’t know Brel, start here then get a compilation of his. If you do know him, buy this anyway and reward a spunky new band as well as your ears.

Ross McGibbon