Graded on a Curve: Brigitte Fontaine,
Brigitte Fontaine

On her ’68 debut LP the youthful actress-writer-singer Brigitte Fontaine announced with conviction her presence as an artful practitioner of the chanson; shortly thereafter emerged a record firmly documenting a departure into the avant-garde as it further highlighted adeptness at collaboration. Three years elapsed before her next effort arrived, and the appropriately eponymous affair established her as a musician of distinction. Brigitte Fontaine is the latest of her albums to receive reissue from Superior Viaduct.

Prior to the release in ’68 of Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle, an LP matching the now revered avant-vocalist and multi-media artist with the accessibly progressive arrangements of conductor Jean-Claude Vannier on 11 French pop songs, Brigitte Fontaine found early success as a playwright and actress, though she began singing in 1963 and made her first recordings with her theater partner, the noted French singer Jacques Higelin, in ’65.

Est…Folle may read like something of an anomaly for the angry year of 1968, but the way in which the sturdy voice of Fontaine and the superb conductions of Vannier (a name some will recognize for his arrangements on Serge Gainsbourg’s ’71 perv-classic Histoire de Melody Nelson, though he worked with Jane Birken and yé-yé singers Françoise Hardy and France Gall amongst others) magnificently gel into a record that would’ve spun naturally upon the turntable of many a chic revolutionary from the era (a la those populating Jean-Luc Godard’s ’67 film La Chinoise).

Est…Folle also reinforced Fontaine’s knack for teamwork (but never art by committee); in fact this tendency spanned back to her theater days, with her hit play Maman j’ai peur crafted with Higelin and the veteran French actor Rufus. But it was ‘69’s Comme À la Radio that displayed her ability to enter into a confident, forward-thinking discussion with heavyweight counterparts, specifically the expat jazzmen of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It additionally inaugurated her association with longtime partner Areski Belkacem.

Comme À la Radio remains one of the sweetest of parting shots from a truly grand decade, and in emphatically vacating pop territory and jumping wholeheartedly into the experimental pool, Fontaine achieved her position as trailblazer both musically and in regards to gender. To be precise, in 1969 (and for a long while after) the musical roles of women were pretty solidly defined as that of Singer (pop, jazz, blues, R&B, country, girl-group, back-up), Songwriter (Carole King, Ellie Greenwich), or Folkie (the Baez template), with of course some room for overlap.

There was very little space for true rockers (Grace Slick essentially an oddity) much less women who wished to inhabit the avant-garde (three of Fontaine’s pioneering contemporaries are Yoko Ono, Patty Waters, and Dorothy Moskowitz). And for years Fontaine was basically unknown in the United States, though her pop-singer cohorts didn’t fare any better; not Hardy or Gall, and certainly not the sublime Clothilde.

Bluntly, with a handful of exceptions (most of them funky) the US market was unprepared and disinterested in up-to-date global wares of a non-English tongue. The ‘80s “World Music” explosion catches a fair amount of flak these days, some of it deserved, but the phenomenon should be acknowledged as a major cross-cultural step preceding the arrival of the internet and the ensuing opened floodgates of worldwide sound appreciation.

But upon consideration Comme À la Radio is one of the most vital examples of the great post-WWII global cultural dialogue, with France a hotbed of the exchange, though Fontaine’s cult popularity in the US grew mostly from the restlessness of ‘90s u-ground music fans taking cues from magazine articles and picking up on assorted namedrops. So it was, and to an extent still is; however, she effortlessly exceeds the status of exotic specimen propped up by the vaunting of the indie crowd.

Brigitte Fontaine is the first of the artist’s LPs to connect fully as hers, though that’s not due to a lack of creative accomplices; Areski is here, as are Euro avant figures Jean-Charles Capon, Philippe Maté, and Daniel Vallancien, long-serving French jazz pianist George Arvanitas, and composer Olivier Bloch-Lainé, with an appearance by actress-singer Julie Dassin (sister of vocalist Joe Dassin and daughter of blacklisted Hollywood exile director Jules Dassin), and even old pal Higelin turning up on guitar.

Bloch-Lainé gets a co-writer’s credit on opener “Brigitte,” the track illustrating that Fontaine hadn’t lost interest in crafting an atmosphere in the neighborhood of straightforward pop, though the emotionally tense blend of vocals, guitar, bass and what sounds like harpsichord wasn’t exactly chart material. Hearing it does promote understanding into Fontaine’s eventual tandem with Stereolab.

It also fades out quicker than expected, setting into motion a recurring tactic on Brigitte Fontaine. Other pieces register as preludes, or as is the case with “Pour le patron,” are apparently hidden tracks on the original vinyl; it begins with what could easily be captured audio from a session of Primal Scream Therapy (Fontaine would’ve probably dismissed the treatment as bourgeois) before segueing into thirty seconds of multi-tracked a cappella singing.

Singing in French, so listeners with a hankering to precisely (or at least approximately) comprehend what’s being sung will have some work cut out for them. Productive work to be sure, though as a listener not always impressed with the domineering use of music as a linguistic vessel, I’ll confess to enjoying the mystery. “Pour le patron” leads directly into “Moi aussi,” a duet, or more accurately a conversation, between Areski and Fontaine to the accompaniment of hand drums.

Even without complete comprehension of what they speak (it reportedly details the degradation and torment of women and immigrants) it’s still a palpably boho throwdown. “Familie,” the other hidden cut, could be a fragment from a claustrophobic late-Nouvelle Vague domestic drama filmed in Academy ratio on grainy B&W, and it heads straight into “L’Auberge,” a potent combination of liturgical organ, Capon’s splendidly woody cello and Fontaine’s operatic rendering of revolutionary and communist slogans (the phrase “power to the people” surfaces in English a few times).

By ’72, the previous decade’s balloon of hopefulness and positivity had burst to smithereens, and in its place was commonly found anger and militancy. Brigitte Fontaine is very much a record of discontent, and even though I barely understand a word of the spoken “Premier Juliet,” it still feels didactic. But in a good way, like a student in a coffee shop sporting a black turtleneck, battered tweed blazer, and denim trousers imparting a few necessary tidbits on Marx as smoke from his unfiltered cigarette clouds the room.

“Le dragon” matches Fontaine’s vocals with more hand drums and stand-up bass, and the brief “Vingt secondes” again layers her voice and Dassin’s and enhances it with gusts of what’s perhaps a pennywhistle. It glides into the lengthier “Eros,” which features just Fontaine and Higelin’s guitar, his playing classically-hued and also folky.

“Une minute cinquante-cinq” (like “Vingt secondes,” the title translates to its duration) begins with a speaking Areski, though the majority of its length combines an attractive and complexly structured vocal weave and the discomfiting sounds of anguish (which I suspect derive from actress Dassin). And then the aural equivalent to a New Wave jump cut (or Burroughsian cut-up); it ends with a short repeating clip of piano and voice.

Next is “Où vas-tu petit garçon”; created together with Maté and Vallancien, it’s a mixture of wobbly, see-sawing free jazz and anarchic nursery rhyme intonations holding a sly false fadeout as Fontaine’s inspired mischief transcends language. And by now, the reader should have an idea of whether or not Brigitte Fontaine is their bag, but please don’t leave with the impression that it’s an unfocused provocation unmoored from common artistic sense.

In hands lacking the disciplined talent on display in Est…Folle, the tactics behind Fontaine’s third LP would likely stack up as an insufferable mess (and would surely be forgotten in 2014). But there is obvious method here; “Marcelle,” a piece largely droney, spiritual and collage-like, culminates in the same blood-curdling scream that opened “Pour le patron,” the penultimate track ending in the manner of the second selection’s beginning.

Rigorous underneath the severity and seeming lack of form, Brigitte Fontaine is loosely comparable to the roughly contemporaneous films of her compatriots Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Luc Moullet. This may seem a stretch, but what they all share is allegiance to a well-worn concept; to effectively break the rules one should know them inside and out. Plus, there are not many records that actually beg comparison. Closing the album is the acoustic psych-folk of “Merry-go-round.” It includes Bloch-Lainé’s guitar and openly flirts with abstraction.

Like a culinary delicacy from another land, Fontaine’s output can be described as an acquired taste, though one that’s ultimately highly satisfying to those with favorable reactions. Ears new to her discography might start with Est…Folle and work forward, the better to absorb the development as an unfolding narrative, but anybody digging Comme À la Radio will definitely want to get familiar with this fascinating and frequently excellent follow-up.

All three were initially issued by the Saravah label, a terrific if undersung French company dedicated to all sorts of interesting late-‘60s/early-‘70s Franco-experimental activity. Fontaine’s next one, co-credited with Areski, came out on the BYG imprint in ’74, and hopefully Superior Viaduct’s Brigitte reissues will continue with L’Incendie and then progress onward through the ‘70s.


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