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Charlotte Gainsbourg & Beck, “IRM” Review

By Rip Empson

You may know Charlotte Gainsbourg as the stunning and talented French actress from The Science of Sleep, 21 Grams, or Lars von Trier’s Palme-d’Or-winning Antichrist -- but what you may not know is that she also happens to be the daughter of legendary gallic singer/songwriter and troublemaker, Serge Gainsbourg. It seems music has always been in her blood, even though she’s spent most of her musical life in the shadow of her father – and their strange, provocative 1984 duet album that included a song called “Lemon Incest.”

Fast forward to 2006 and you’d find Gainsbourg beginning to establish her own musical sound, thanks to her Air-backed, heart-break record, 5:55, which went platinum in France. She parlayed her success into a collaboration with jack-of-all-sounds, Mr. Beck Hansen, who produced her latest effort, IRM.

Written, produced, arranged, and mostly played by Beck, IRM unsurprisingly sounds a lot like … a Beck album. WEIRD, right? With the sonic swashbuckler at the helm, musically IRM is a Frankensteinian mix of psych rock, nerd rap, graveyard blues, and eerie ballads. As a result, the album feels a lot like the doppelganger of Modern Guilt, Beck’s 2008 collaboration with the ubiquitous Danger Mouse.

Thematically, IRM, which is French for “MRI,” was inspired by a head injury Gainsbourg sustained while water skiing that led to two years of testing and multiple brain scans to prove that she was healthy. The incident and its aftermath left an indelible impression on her, inspiring the album’s mood, which seems permeated by electronic resonances, biological cadences, and heavy, existential lyrics.

Though Gainsbourg’s vocal abilities seem somewhat limited, she gets the most out of her voice, varying her approach with each song. And in spite of the overall eeriness of the album, her reverb-soaked cooing, purring, and double-tracked harmonizing adds a sex appeal and joyful defiance to the sinister landscape.

The heavy bass, minimal guitar and breathy vocals of the album allow its songs to anxiously explore the darker side of pop music, as the distortion-tinged guitar of “Trick Pony” sounds like something Danger Mouse and The Black Keys would have created, as Gainsbourg’s vocal harmonies float over it in psychedelic reverb – as is “Looking Glass Blues,” which is another opiate-filled song riffing on Alice in Wonderland, backed by inverted organ and spooky blues guitar.

All in all, IRM seems to have brought out the best of both Beck and Gainsbourg, especially if you are a fan of the creepier side of pop. There’s a lot going on sonically, and a lot of pondering going on thematically, which gives the album depth and makes it worthy of multiple listens. I’m not always a fan of dour, abstract pop music, but a sexy French grim reaper is better than the alternative, am I right? IRM may be wispy-edged and hallucinogenic, but it succeeds in celebrating the fragility and darkness of life -- and, in the end -- the bliss of survival.

It’s definitely an interesting album and well worth a listen.

11 out of a possible 13 caskets.

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