Marianne James

Marianne James

2006: Warner Music France 2564 63917 2

  1. Fragile
  2. Les People
  3. La nuit
  4. Dans tes pupilles
  5. Tout te tue
  6. 3,14…
  7. Fringantes, Fringuées
  8. Corps et Âme
  9. Dans ma rue
  10. Patati Patata
  11. Une chanteuse de chansons

I was ready to be disappointed with this album. Despite Marianne James’s spectacular production of the late 1990s, L’Ultima Récital, which I had the unprepared and thus baffled pleasure of experiencing in Paris in 1998, I’d been advised by a Paris-dwelling American pal who’d attended a Marianne James concert around 2003 that she was overhyped and that her material and performance were mediocre.

That I read his account of the concert and forgot that he can be an extremely dismissive bitch is my own fault, and obtaining this album (a little belatedly) has proven to be an excellent antidote to that fundamentally negative critical outlook. Because I really, really like this CD.

It’s not hard to disassociate James’s singing here from the extremes of her “Ulrika von Glott” character in L’Ultima Récital—in fact it’s hard to put the two into the same picture frame (although there’s a nod to Ulrika in the opening track when she mentions that lying on her sofa she fantasizes about being the Diva). James’s voice is beautifully expressive throughout and shows a nice range of characters but nothing particularly wild.

The songs themselves are a grab-bag of qualities, usually quite enjoyable and well-written if not spectacularly artistic, and upon reflection after a solid bunch of listenings I can say that I’m very happy to have this CD resident in my library and playing in my ears. The video for “Les People” was what alerted me to the album’s existence in the first place—and it’s an amusing-if-not-hilarious video—but the tracks that stand out most for me already are “Une chanteuse de chansons,” “Tout te tue,” the truly enigmatic “3,14…,” and my personal favorite here, “Dans ma rue,” which swings and sways in a folksy way while expressing a lovely modern Parisian sentiment (that one needn’t bother travelling to distant lands when after all one has the best of so many worlds anywhere one turns at street level in Paris).

“Patati Patata” and the opening track “Fragile” express much the same thing—that James has a formidable exterior but is tender and reflective inside—and each is amusing and reflective in its own way but the latter is played for amusement (not laughs). “Corps et âme” is a little too tragically milked Billie Holiday for me (“I belonged to him, body and soul” being the chorus’s translation), but its lyrics can’t be faulted for their expressiveness. Really the big surprise here, for me, is that “Une chanteuse de chansons” is actually a lovely piece and an oddly delicate closer for this album; the song’s lyrics are nothing new—a portrait of a singer constantly touring small gigs—but James gives the picture an elegant transcendence that’s simultaneously gentle and poignant. “Elle est heureuse / Parfois maleureuse” (“she’s happy / sometimes unhappy”) is a good example of the flitting nuances of expression that so charmingly describe this scene. (It doesn’t impress onscreen or on paper, but in the context of the song it’s beautifully deft.)

Here’s an update to this review, as of November 2007: James has apparently produced an appropriately non-flashy video for “Dans ma rue” (as opposed to the more obviously produced videos for the first two tracks), currently viewable on youtube. Two things about this video delight me: that it’ a Parisienne’s celebration of that city and its matter-of-fact cosmopolitan nature, and that it’s an “acoustic” version of the song in question. Each aspect augments and enrichens the experience of the original beloved song for me in its own way…probably best of all as she’s singing it as a busker in the various pedestrian tunnels of the Métro.