IRM: Charlotte Gainsbourg

The singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and the alt-folk star Beck put their heads together and come up with an engaging album with few missteps.

Charlotte Gainsbourg's latest album is inspired by a scan the singer/actress underwent to diagnose a brain haemorrhage.
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After jumping at the chance to appear in one of the nastiest films in recent memory - Lars von Trier's masterpiece of cruelty Antichrist - many have found themselves wondering what goes on inside the French singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg's head. In fact, it's a question people have been asking for quite a while - the artist has rarely shied away from controversy. So news that Gainsbourg's third album was inspired by an MRI scan (or IRM, as they're called in France) that diagnosed a near-fatal brain haemorrhage, could mean that we're finally about to discover how that rather artistic skull of hers works.

Or maybe not. Because it wasn't Gainsbourg who supplied the lyrics and music for IRM - but the alt-folk wizard Beck. It's a collaboration that, for the most part, works incredibly well. The US singer/songwriter's woozy compositions and scattershot lyrics fit Gainsbourg's oddball personality and ghostly vocals perfectly. The opener Master's Hand sets out the album's intentions clearly. Its percussive flurries, yearning strings and seductive vocals paint a portrait of the artist with all her idiosyncrasies, even if the details are a little blurry.

Beck's distinctive vocals don't show up in earnest until someway into the record, duetting with Gainsbourg on Heaven Can Wait. The song, with its singalong chorus, crashing drums and even a few horn blasts, quickly becomes the album's centrepiece. But like much of the rest of the record, Gainsbourg's quivering vocals seem conspicuously low in the mix - most noticeable here because of Beck's presence on the microphone.

Despite sometimes seeming a little lost in the record's ample production, which includes string arrangements by Beck's father, David Campbell, on the moving Vanities, there's enough of Gainsbourg to shine through in most of the tunes. A number of the songs even see the pair moving into territory that feels completely new for both artists. It's a place that exists in between the worlds of folk and electronic music, where the two genres don't clash but exist in perfect harmony. It's the sort of delicate sound that the British group Broadcast have been crafting for a few years now and is particularly evident here on the title track IRM, as well as Me and Jane Doe.

Later on, the record gets bombastic with Trick Pony. Although the song impressively evokes Portishead's latest opus at first, it quickly descends into something more generic and closer to Goldfrapp. Although IRM never really sets a foot wrong - as we have come to expect with any project Beck associates himself with - the album feels slightly short on standout moments. Sure, Gainsbourg has never been about showing off, but her performance sometimes feels remarkably restrained.

Despite this, it's an album with plenty of bewitching and subtle moments. If the pair don't find themselves collaborating again in future, they need their heads examined.