There are some bright ideas, the cultural playbook tells us, north Americans should leave well alone lest they want to invoke the angry spirit guardians of someone else’s heritage. When the legacy in question is that of someone considered a French national icon, that good advice may be especially pertinent. Particularly in the case of an icon so revered as Edith Piaf, the tragic ‘Little Sparrow’, a romantic martyr to the grand passions of the mythical Gallic soul. We don’t do popular singers in quite the same way in the Anglo-Saxon world. With a voice drenched in absinthe and cracked by gitane smoke, a demeanour gracefully wrapped in the tricolore and a place in the heart of Francophiles well beyond the physical and psychological borders of La France Profonde, Piaf is to many what French popular culture is all about. What kind of non-French artist would dare dabble with such a fiercely protected mythos?
Step forward Martha Wainwright. Raised in bilingual Montreal, she has the advantage of herself being a Francophone and part of a culture that has always brought together what oppositionalists on both sides of the Anglo/Gallic divide say can never happily co-exist. Wainwright is a north American, but like other Québécois, she has a statut particulier when it comes to her heritage. San Fusils, Ni Souliers, ÀParis finds her inhabiting and exploring that heritage in a manner that goes way beyond the kitsch pastiche of a million ill-judged cabaret singers launching into an overblown ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. Piaf’s signature calling card doesn’t get a look in, likewise ‘La Vie En Rose’; instead it’s less familiar numbers from the Little Sparrow’s canon that are showcased here. Conceived with a ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude and joined by a band of musicians including her long-time collaborator Brad Albetta, pianist Thomas Bartlett and multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman, Martha and her “New York cats” ditch the hushed reverence for something altogether more Wainwright. And it works.
From the cascading, cinematic beginnings of ‘Le Foule’, as the lovers of the lyrics, drunk and happy in each others’ arms, skip a mad farandole, Wainwright discovers the joyful love of free expression at the heart of these songs, a fact sometimes lost on the most ardent of Piaf protectionists. Her version of the beautiful late-night ballad ‘Adieu Mon Cœur’ sounds less fragile than the Piaf original, the protagonist at its heart swapping vulnerability for a grittier, more determined farewell to a less than true heart, the lush piano sweep carrying the emotional force of the vocal to its fullest flow. Swaggering bombast gets a look in on the rafter raising, sing-a-long of ‘L’Accordeoniste’, the hesitation at the climax, followed by the claps and whoops of the audience reminding you that this is a live recording. The growling grenadiers of ‘Les Grognards’, with its discordant marching beats, military trumpets and tales of the Napoleonic Imperial Guard is drama of a different kind. There is threat at its heart, a splendour tied up with menace.
Coming as a welcome relief from the pomp of Imperial France, ‘C’est Toujours La Meme Histoire’ arrives with a swaying, singalong ‘la-la-la-la’ and a cosy, end of the evening feeling that you’ve heard it a thousand times before. Even if you understand not one line of the lyric, you can at least share in the warmth of the moment. ‘Marie Trottoir’ is another highlight. A tale of a Parisian streetwalker which retains a determination to find beauty in the most tragic of lives, it’s bittersweet throughout, the loveliness of the melody and the poignancy of its subject matter contrasting to create a controlled dignity in the face of the harshest of circumstances. Though her aim is generally true, Wainwright doesn’t nail everything. ‘Non, La Vie N’est Pas Triste’, a rejoinder to not only see the tragic in life ironically fails to come to life itself, despite the driving chug of the guitar and the best efforts of the vocalist, who falls somewhere between tenderness and exultation but never fully convinces of either. Likewise ‘Soudain Une Vallee’, which somehow comes up short despite a flawless performance by everyone involved.
Live albums are frequently disappointing, remaining the preserve of completist fans, and in this instance the songs and performance need the presence of an audience to be fully made sense of. Piaf dramatised a certain kind of soul-response to the trials of love, the beauty and the tragedy of a life most at home in the poetic imagination. It was never a solitary act, but an almost sacramental relationship between artist and an audience that felt the same things but couldn’t articulate those feelings to the degree that she could. Even if she did approach this project with a degree of irreverence, Martha Wainwright manages to take on that mantle, finding her own voice and her own vivid emotional journey in the sweeping tales and drama of another nation’s heroine. There is much here for lovers of Piaf and Wainwright alike, and a decent introduction to both for those still not enamoured with either.
[Co-op/Drowned In Sound; November 9, 2009]