Pierre de Gaillande Translates and Reimagines a New Collection of Hilarious Georges Brassens Songs

Pierre de Gaillande‘s first collection of English translations of songs by legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens was one of 2010’s most deliciously fun, lyrical albums. The Brooklyn art-rocker who currently leads the Snow has returned with Bad Reputation, Volume 2, a new mix of Brassens songs. In a thirty-year career that began in the late 40s, Brassens was both a celebrity and a big pain in the ass of the French authorities: getting banned from the radio only made him more wildly popular. De Gaillande has said that Brassens was more punk than most punk rockers, and he’s right: Brassens had more than one bête noire, including fascists, religious nuts and hypocrites from all walks of life. His songs are riddled with puns, double and triple entendres. That his lyrics have held up as well as they have over the decades, considering how slangy they are, not to mention Brassens’ constant references to history, mythology and Catholicism, attests to the power of his caustic wit. But despite all that, Brassens never reached an audience far beyond his native land, partly because he sang exclusively in French (in an era when French singers often courted an Anglophone audience), partly because his songs had such bare-bones production: he was lo-fi decades before lo-fi was cool.

With de Gaillande at the helm of this project, Brassens’ songs get the benefit of a much better singer and also a more accomplished multi-instrumentalist (Brassens never cared to do more than comp basic chords on guitar or piano), as well as elegant Romany jazz and chamber pop-tinged arrangements. As with the first album, the band includes de Gaillande’s Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass along with numerous cameo appearances, among them bass clarinetis Ken Thomson, chanteuse Keren Ann and Brassens’ final lead guitarist, Joel Favreau. As he did on the first Bad Reputation album, de Gaillande has also matched the rhyme scheme of Brassens’ lyrics throughout virtually all of the songs here, no small achievement.

While it has its excoriating moments, this collection is somewhat more lighthearted than the first Bad Reputation mix. As before, the songs are taken from throughout Brassens’ career. The first, Dear Old Leon (Le vieux Leon), is fueled by humor that’s subtly vicious rather than in-your-face like Brassens usually was: it’ll resonate mightily with people who don’t like accordions. Like many of Brassens’ songs, it’s something of a faux eulogy: too bad we didn’t stick around that night when old Leon crashed the party with his squeezebox, the narrator muses. In a cruel stroke of irony, this album is the final recording by Jean-Jacques Franchin, Brassens’ longtime keyboardist, who plays accordion on this and several other songs with a lithe, animated touch.

Interestingly, de Gaillande translates La complainte des filles de joie as Lament of the Ladies of Leisure, adding yet another level of possible sarcasm to Brassens’ only half-sarcastic defense of hardworking, underappreciated hookers. There are a couple of kiss-off songs here: Give Them All a Kiss (Embrasse-les tous) is a vengeful waltz directed at a girl with an “artichoke heart, anyone can have a leaf,” who goes for “Tall ones and short, even Lilliputians fully grown, give them all a kiss, god will recognize his own.” And With All Due Respect (Sauf le respect que je vous dois) finds Brassens the pacifist threatening to punch out anyone who brings up the subject of love.

The War of 14-18 (La guerre de 14-18) reaffirms that antiwar stance, a sarcastic defense of the First World War as being the greatest of them all since it was the most gruesome.  The decision to follow In the Clear Water of the Fountain (Dans l’eau de la claire fontaine), a coy nude-girl scenario, with The Wind (Le vent), a sendup of bourgeois conformity, is absolutely brilliant, both thematically and lyrically. Wine (Le vin) is one of the alltime great drinking songs, and de Gaillande delivers it lustily as the band builds to a klezmer-tinged romp. As Brassens tells it, his parents found him under a vine, “not the cabbage patch like all of those average Joes…if cows made red wine, I’d milk them before breakfast.” Likewise, The Old Man (L’ancêtre) tells the sad tale of a dedicated crew hell-bent on giving their dying friend a kickass sendoff, with music, and wine, and prostitutes…but the killjoy nun at the door won’t have any of it.

The Storm (L’orage) is classic Brassens, working every irony and Freudian symbol in the story of a guy trying to seduce the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman. The album ends with The Codicil (Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sete), which is the longest song Brassens ever wrote, a detailed list of burial instructions. Brassens explains that he wants his final resting place to be at the beach where he can watch hot girls from the great beyond –  and if any of them want to use his tomb for sunbathing or changing their clothes, so much the better. English-speaking Brassens fans will have a great time debating the nuances of de Gaillande’s artful and clever translations; for those who don’t speak French, this album and its predecessor are a long overdue introduction. De Gaillande plays the album release show for this one on Oct 27 at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.