Arabesque (EMI France/Narada World, 2003)
It’s odd how our society feels so much nostalgia for the swinging sixties and this era’s icons. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to stay stuck in the past. Take for instance, the latest recording, Arabesque by sixties icon Jane Birkin. Although the English actress and recording star has appeared in approximately 81 films and has several recordings under her belt since the 60’s, she is being marketed as a who’s who from the past. For instance, her biography that came with the advance CD, spent more time reflecting on her marriage to the French songwriter-performer Serge Gainsbourg and her other past associations rather than commenting on the live concert performance (1997) that comprises Jane’s DVD and CD, Arabesque.Arabesque features outstanding performers of North African origin and marks a collaboration of Jane Birkin, the Algerian Rai artists Khaled and Cheb Mami. Virtuoso violinist Djamel Benyelles (worked with the late Gainsbourg), Fred Maggi (piano), Amel Riahiel Mansouri (lute), Aziz Boularoug (percussion) and Moumen (vocals) also contribute stellar performances that beg to be noticed and they do collaborate on the instrumental track, She Left Home. And in fact, I would like to hear more music by the above musicians. It’s not that Jane doesn’t hold up her part since she is able to deliver this retrospective of laments with the right tearful vocals. And her audience appears delighted to trek down the road with her, but how many times must Gainsbourg’s catalogue of songs be rehashed? I guess the answer to that question depends on a cultural preference. Even the philosophical French-speaking population sheds sentimental tears for a bygone era. And the Arabesque angle would appeal to a younger audience currently enticed by North African rhythms and Middle Eastern harmonies.
All said and done, this collection of songs works remarkably well with the North African trappings. And Jane’s “fragile” vocals embellish the melancholic songs, Et Quand Bien Meme, Valse De Melody (she shares vocal duties with Mouman), Amours Des Feintes, Les Dessous Chics and Les Cles Du Paradis. The classic, Couleur Café provides a lively respite from the overall sadness and Baby Alone in Babylone flows to a waltz-like cadence with plucked violin instead of weeping strings that appear on most of the songs.
Although I find myself enjoying a few of the songs, Arabesque feels like a marketing ploy for an aging artist re-igniting her recording career. With one foot deeply entrenched in the past and another one stepping precariously into the current trends, it’s hard to say how the record-buying public will react to this CD. Personally, I would rather take my chances listening to lesser known North African performers and chanteuses. At least then, I will hear the crème de la crème.