April 12, 2024

Mike Patton and Jean-Claude Vannier – “Corpse Flower” – packed full of respect for a giant of French music


I feel the love and respect dripping from this. It’s a serious pastiche, an utterly focussed hommage, yet all-new.

Once the singer with Faith No More, Mike Patton has eclipsed that work with numerous projects on his Ipecac label. Jean-Claude Vannier did the arrangements for that most dramatic of Serge Gainsbourg albums, Histoire De Melody Nelson. Vannier has a rack of film work under his belt and it shows here, whereas Patton’s left-field ideas and pleasure in shock and detournement plays well here. The pair met when working on a Gainsbourg tribute show and their mutual interests led to this, an authentically original set of songs, true to the spirit and sounds of some of Serge’s best work. Yet it doesn’t owe anything to Gainsbourg and it doesn’t require a love of the Gitane-smoking dissolute. We raise a glass of Pastis to you, Mike and Jean-Claude!

‘Ballad C.3.3’ riffs on Wilde’s Ballad Of Reading Gaol. The dramatic orchestration and spoken lyrics have me in mind of Gainsbourg immediately, as does the simple but weighty topic. ‘Camion’ is almost part of a narrative and the middle section brings to mind the ‘Ballade Of Melodie Nelson’. ‘Chansons D’Amour’ is corny but classy, a piano ballad with husky nostalgia. A sweet melody with strings, tied to dry vocals is very Gainsbourg, very French 70’s M.O.R. ‘Cold Sun And Warm Beer’ takes a classically Serge play on ideas and repeats until it becomes a mantra. It is dramatic, with a hypnotic chorus. ‘Hungry Ghost’ opens “I know quite well you don’t love me” and is as close as the album gets to its inspiration – warm, rich, theatrical, subverted. It takes a welcome trip into Tom Waits circus land.

‘Corpse Flower’, the title track, has a swinging orchestral beat and timpani along with a semi-random scattering of atmospheric Spanish, French and English food words for dishes made from meat; from corpses. The music, very sixties, trends towards ‘Marilyn Sous Le Neige’. ‘Insolubles’ is the big ballad with accordion. Nick Cave is the flavour here. A tinge of a slightly awkward translation adds colour, like the adaptations Scott Walker used for Brel. A list of Paris landmarks adds atmosphere. ‘On Top Of The World’ is a big belter and subverts the genre with it’s gloriously crude determination: “When I get to the top of the world, I’m going to shit all over the Earth”. ‘A Schoolgirl’s Day’ is hilarious. Taking the extremely dodgy aspects of Melody Nelson (okay, the whole concept is dodgy….), with Gainsbourg’s determination to ‘epater les bourgeoisie’ (despite being one), whilst being a dirty old man, fantasising about young women, it turns it on it’s head. This is the anti-Serge. Portentous music illustrates the narration of a perfectly normal, non-dodgy daily routine. That is until, at 10 o’clock, she jumps from the window. ‘Pink And Blue’ is fabulous, too. Remembering old times, old loves, old fights in a big soupy ballad – “when I drink too much, I shit my pants”. Firmly in the chanson tradition, it is simultaneously a tribute and a challenge to the genre.

This is a work of love and is full of things to love for anyone who has a taste for Gainsbourg, or even cheesy French middle of the road, or even big ballads turned upside down.

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