Charlotte Gainsbourg

5:55

(Wea International; 2006/2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 15 December 2007

5:55, the second album by French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, should be considered more as the work of a supergroup than that of a lone songstress and composer. Gainsbourg brought in an expensive backing band for her vanity project. First she gets Air, taking a break from recording that follow-up to Talkie Walkie (2004) , to provide their trademark blend of slinky synth lines and dramatic strings. Then she brings in Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon to actually write her lyrics, letting both of them ham it up to an extreme on many of these tracks. And hell -- Nigel Godrich was just sitting around, so she lets him produce the thing.

Judging by how well 5:55 comes out on the whole, it probably wasn't a bad investment. Make no mistake, this is a slight record, but nonetheless one with more than a few enjoyable moments. Air does an excellent job throughout, providing over-the-top instrumentals that suit Gainsbourg's breathy, British-accented vocals quite nicely. "AF607105" is a testament to their ability to not only build up that brand of dreamy, futurist elevator-musak, but also to rein it in when necessary. Cocker and Hannon are clearly having their fun too -- making Gainsbourg pronounce "Saskatchewan" seems rather silly -- but they do well throughout.

When the music and lyric writers work well together, they can even manage some top-notch pop music. The best example of this comes pretty early on the record, with "The Operation," an amalgam of all sorts of entendres and heartbreak. The hook -- that simple line of "Olive goes under the knife" coupled with the piano line and quiet, mechanical drumming -- is startlingly pretty even after a dozen listens. There are a few other moments on par with this: "The Songs that We Sing" is pleasant enough, the title track is well-constructed, and that lazy bass line on "Jamais" gives the song a certain charm. Still, the songs blend together after awhile, the central formula overwhelming the particularities of the tracks. Air play it pretty safe throughout, sticking closer to their Premier Symptomes (1997) material than the experimental goofiness we've come to know and love. Part of that is just a function of the project, but many of the tracks here seem a bit too repetitive and listless. Especially since Gainsbourg, while sometimes seductive, struggles with selling the playful sexuality of the lyrics and music throughout. The second half lags a fair bit.

What's really surprising about this whole project, though, is that it serves as a testament to the quality of a band that made a (short) career out of songs that actively emulated Air and Pulp: Black Box Recorder. The band, a British trio, put out three records between 1998 and 2003, mastering a mix of the snide and the sexy, and packing their songs to the gills with fatalism and cynicism. They were thoroughly entertaining, and self-destructed a bit too early. If you're intent on getting some dark, sexy, British-inflected indie-pop this weekend, I'd go with either BBR's The Facts of Life (2000) or The Worst of Black Box Recorder (2001) before picking up Gainsbourg's 5:55. Gainsbourg has her charms, to be sure, but I'll stick with the real thing.