One of my favourite record labels is Ace Records out of the UK, a crazily cool boutique label that curates so many enormously enjoyable, richly researched reissues ranging from rock, to pop, to soul, to jazz, to garage rock. Their “Chic” series of releases chronicling the yé-yé era of French pop music in the 1960s and the women who sang it came out at the right time for me, just when I was in the midst of a serious obsession with France Gall, Gillian Hills, Jacqueline Taïeb, Françoise Hardy, and of course, Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote so many of the best yé-yé tracks ever recorded. Because of those CDs, I always keep an eye on what Ace Records will do next, and boy did they knock two new releases out of the park in early 2020.
If you’re in France, Belgium, or even Quebec, it’s easy to find compilations of Brigitte Bardot songs, but it wasn’t until Ace put together the 25-track collection La Belle et le Blues that there was finally a Bardot compilation specifically put together for Anglophone listeners. For me personally, I already had Bonnie and Clyde, the album Bardot made with Gainsbourg during the brief period where she was his muse, and I knew the tracks that were included in the Chic series. But, frankly, that was it.
What was interesting about Bardot’s ‘60s recorded output was where she was personally at the time. At 28, a cruelly old age for women actors, she was already a very well established sex symbol worldwide, and just as her cinematic fame started to tail off (but don’t ever forget about her sensational performance in Godard’s 1965 classic Le Mépris) she was savvy enough to launch a brief but highly influential musical career. She might have been a decade older than the other young women putting out their own bouncy yé-yé singles, and she was frankly a lousy singer, but she had something that few if any of her younger peers possessed: charisma.
Who needs technical skill when you have charisma? And Bardot oozed it, whether it was selling playful “Twist” style rock ‘n’ roll, slick cutting-edge pop, mellow St. Tropez-inspired cool, or as with Gainsbourg, smouldering heat. She only recorded around 60 songs, but her influence on French popular culture was incalculable, and to this day we hear French artists try their best to equal what Bardot pulled off 50 years earlier. 25 of her best songs are on this collection, including her greatest moments (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “Ne me laisser pas l’aimer”, the crazily sultry original version of “Je t’aime moi non plus”) and there are loads and loads of other ‘60s tracks to discover. I absolutely love this compilation, and it’ll fit nicely on my shelf alongside all the other French pop albums I’ve collected over the years.
But wait, Ace wasn’t through taking my money. Right at the same time as the release of La Belle et le Blues came something different, but kind of similar too.
Scott Walker, who sadly died in 2019 after a marvellous late-career renaissance, first gained solo notoriety in the mid-‘60s thanks to a series of quirky, lavish albums that carved out his own very unique niche while at the same time honouring more traditional songwriters. One of the biggest influences on the young Walker was Belgian hero Jacques Brel, and he would go on to record English versions of several Brel songs on his first three solo albums, including “Amsterdam”, “Jackie”, “Next”, and “If You Go Away”. I am nuts about early Scott Walker, and especially his Brel covers, so I was pretty darn excited when Ace announced they were putting out a Walker/Brel compilation.
The idea behind Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel is the kind of nerdy thing a music fan would assemble as a mix tape or CD. Essentially, the first half of the album features nine Brel covers by Walker, while the second half comprises of Brel singing the original French versions of the exact same songs, in the same sequential order. And oh, does that concept ever work on this collection.
The end result is a fascinating vocal duel by two of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century. Singing English translations by Mort Shuman, Walker’s approach is mannered yet at the same time slyly capable of the coarse humour on such songs as “Next” and “Jackie”, enriched by lavish orchestral arrangements. It’s a blast hearing the young wunderkind attempt to conquer such difficult, sordid songs, and he succeeds mightily. However, when Brel comes along with his own renditions, listeners are dragged into the gutter by Brel’s impassioned, sweat-drenched performances. The two singers admired each other, to the point of Brel covering young Walker’s “Seul”, which included here as a sort of encore, a conclusion to a brilliant collection. If you’re familiar with either gentleman, this is an absolutely perfect introduction.
These two wonderful compilations (which are complete with loads of photos and well-written liner notes) are not on Spotify nor Bandcamp, but I implore you to purchase them directly from Ace Records here and here. You won’t be disappointed.