Gainsbourg's newest album is content to encompass her past influences, as well as celebrating her present musical growth.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Stage Whisper
Charlotte Gainsbourg may be renowned for her beautifully nuanced acting in independent and European art-house films, but it was her singing voice at the tender age of 13 that marked her first real appearance on the artistic stage.
That was in 1984, when she did a duet with her father, the musical chameleon Serge Gainsbourg, on the disco-driven Lemon Incest.
Two years later, she released her debut album, Charlotte For Ever. While the record remains a delicate pleasure, it was a Charlotte Gainsbourg album virtually in name only, as her father's fingerprints were all over the record - from his production skills to his penning all but one song.
Perhaps it was partly this - and, of course, a burgeoning film career - that saw Gainsbourg junior disappear from the musical landscape, only to re-emerge two decades later with 5:55, for which she once again enlisted some outside help: the French electronic duo Air, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and the Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon all pitched in with songwriting duties.
But unlike her debut, 5:55 found Gainsbourg consciously going out of her way to distance herself musically from her father, going so far as to sing most of the album in English. The approach yielded mixed results: while retaining some of her father's lyrical mannerisms in terms of sensual subject matter, she managed - courtesy of Air - to create a more luscious, dreamlike sound, heavy on imagery, with Gainsbourg's accented voice only adding to the ethereal vibe of the project.
It was in her third album that she truly found her own voice, after a water-skiing accident in 2007 caused a near-fatal brain haemorrhage. She survived the surgery and returned to the studio to release the stunning IRM, named after the French acronym for the MRI medical scanner. On the album, she teamed up with the eclectic Beck to produce her most confident record yet, full of her trademark whispery sass but backed up with rockier and more rugged arrangements.
Her latest offering, the double CD release Stage Whisper, is a pleasant holding pattern rather than another leap forward.
Stage Whisper offers only a scant seven tracks - leftovers from the IRM sessions - alongside a live CD of performances taken from her 2010 European summer tour.
However, before crying foul, it takes a few listens to understand the omissions from IRM. Happily for the listener, it was not because of any perceived lack of quality - none of the tracks feels tossed off - but because they did not fit lyrically or musically with the tightly coiled atmosphere of IRM.
The lead single and opener Terrible Angels also confirms that the songwriting collaboration between Beck and Gainsbourg had plenty of gas left in the tank.
Beginning with Gainsbourg's detached a cappella vocals, the track escalates to encompass buzz-saw synth-lines before locking on to a stomping groove the likes of which made Goldfrapp famous.
The acoustic-driven White Telephone sounds dispassionately personal, with Gainsbourg's vocals taking a back seat to the baroque arrangement, which includes a tender violin and double bass.
The funky Paradisco shows Gainsbourg can also have fun as she coos over a darkly pulsating bass line, while in the folk-tinged Memoir, co-written with the Villagers' Conor O'Brien, she recalls the intimacy of early Belle and Sebastian.
There is also something to say about the live portion of Stage Whisper, demonstrating Gainsbourg's growing confidence as a live performer in not only delivering her own songs, but in her interpretations as well: her warm and intimate take on Bob Dylan's Just Like a Woman being a real treat.
Instead of giving us an insight into Gainsbourg's future musical direction, Stage Whisper is content to encompass her past influences, as well as celebrating her present musical growth.
It is an inviting pit stop on a musical path yet to reach its peak.