A window into Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mind

With her new release, Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg now considers herself what she refers to as a “proper writer.” For the first time, she has written her own lyrics. Her collaborators on her previous three studio albums had taken care of all lyrical and songwriting duties, with the exception of one track she co-wrote with Beck on her 2009 release, IRM. While she was working on Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg revealed to Mojo that Beck, during the IRM sessions, had offered a simple yet insightful nugget of advice for hurling oneself into the waters of songwriting: “You have to write the worst song ever, and that’s how you start.”

Thankfully, her worst song ever does not appear on Rest. Instead, the veteran actress (Antichrist, Prête-moi ta main, Nymphomaniac) sings her bilingual French and English lyrics, distilled from her diaries, to the techno, house, and ambient beats of French electronic artist Sebastian Akchoté, creating a pleasantly dynamic yet poignantly personal work that showcases Gainsbourg’s vocal versatility. Akchoté must have taken notes on how Gainsbourg’s vocals on her 2006 release, 5:55, written by Air and Jarvis Cocker, occasionally fell into an awkward placement atop the band’s downtempo tracks, where Gainsbourg was unable to break out of a breathy delivery. Likewise, Akchoté must have also been informed by the sweet alchemy Gainsbourg and Beck had struck on IRM, with Beck’s braiding of singer-songwriter hooks and irresistible electro-indie rhythms allowing Gainsbourg to offer her own version of punchy French 60s yé-yé (albeit in English) as well as an injection of sexy edginess into her breathiness, creating a delightful contradiction.

The contradictions on Rest are less subtle. Gainsbourg recalls standing by her father’s dead body as the sound of nails driven into the coffin remains with her in “Lying with you,” while a driving drum machine and haunting keyboard lines, reminiscent of a late 70s Tangerine Dream groove, creates a darkness that lurks just beneath a glossy veneer of pop.

In contrast, Gainsbourg lays bare her grief in “Kate,” in which she reflects on the life of her half-sister who died in an apparent suicide. Akchoté opts for a sparser electronic pulse as Gainsbourg pushes through sorrow with a powerful angelic voice (“On the way to school / You were singing your idols” builds up to “A soul too tender” and “Lost forever”). With majestic, string-soaked turnarounds that sound as if they nod to Sufjan Stevens, Akchoté sharpens the edge of emotion with a touch of distortion on Gainsbourg’s vocals.

The infectious and dancefloor-ready “Deadly Valentine” reveals a recitation of wedding vows, perhaps representing her devotion to her long-standing partner, the actor and director Yvan Attal, in place of a legal marriage owing to her avoidance of the institution. While Akchoté managed to make all 23 brief tracks on his 2011 release Total sound and feel unique, Akchoté must have known he had hit on a killer groove for Gainsbourg’s “Deadly Valentine,” enough to lay down an almost interchangeable chorus for “Sylvia Says.” Thankfully, Gainsbourg brings a fresh tone and flavor to each to keep them distinctive and, fortunately, both tracks are not back to back on the CD (for us old-school folks who still play albums from start to finish).

Gainsbourg takes us for a gentle jaunt into French nouvelle chanson on “Dans Vos Airs.” While a comparison to Coralie Clement may be tempting, Gainsbourg’s own breathy coffeehouse delivery possesses too much body to be mistaken for the airy whispers of the former.

On “Songbird in a cage,” the only track whose lyrics Gainsbourg did not pen (Paul McCartney wrote the song for her some years back and also played guitars, piano, and drums on the track), Gainsbourg deftly alternates between yé-yé half-shouts on verses and silky Phantogram-esque choruses. Rounding out the top-shelf guest appearances Gainsbourg secured for the album, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk wrote the sparse, spacy music of the title track that dovetails well with Gainsbourg’s sensual dreamscape (“Stay with me, please / Do not let me forget you / Take my hand, secretly / I’ll let you fly me away”).

While the bare leg that pops “out of the sheet without shame and cold blood” during “Lying with You” belongs to the French singer, songwriter, and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, his daughter has shown that while she was born from entertainment royalty (the British actress and singer Jane Birkin is her mother), she has carved out her own career and style, despite living in such tall shadows. Many fans of her father have expected to hear his daughter write and sing songs like his to satisfy their fix after Serge’s untimely death in 1991. While the Serge effect is unmistakable on Rest, especially in “Les Crocodiles,” with a confidence-oozing spoken narration, a buildup of strings, and a dry snare seemingly sampled from Histoire de Melody Nelson and only slightly fattened up, such details don’t spell out a mini-me Serge imitation. Rather, they form a tribute pulled sparingly from a songwriting toolset when the timing was right. And no one is better prepared for such a tribute than Serge’s own offspring.

After sharing thoughts on a visit to her sister’s grave in “Les Oxalis,” the final track, Gainsbourg attempts to lighten up the ambience with a hidden track containing an auto-tuned recording of her daughter singing the alphabet song, put to a stock electronic beat. Most likely, the idea behind the track—besides underscoring the continuing cycle of death and life—was that a singing child can put a smile on just about anyone’s face. Unfortunately, the track comes off as sounding like knob-nerd studio experimentation.

While Rest loses some ground compared to the instant catchiness of IRM, Gainsbourg’s own words make her new album her most vital to date. The album’s brave reflection on grief, melded with a beat-driven physique, creates a compelling and rewarding opus that reveals a deep connection between the artist and her work, something her fans (myself included) have been waiting for.

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Jerky of the Sea

In my memories of sharing bags of dulse with my grandfather on the couch, I was the only other person in the family who would eat the peculiarly salty snack with him. We looked forward to each savory curl of the dried seaweed, ranging in color from dark ruby to black, that bore scents of tobacco and licorice. Owing to its saltiness and chewiness, dulse delivers a satisfying, jerky-like experience.

When dulse is dried, it becomes a shelf-stable snack I can rely on while sitting out freezing northeastern weather, like today. But some of my most recent memories involving dulse recall a much sunnier atmosphere. A few summers back, I had a chance to visit my grandfather’s old Acadian stomping grounds of Prince Edward Island, where the native Mi’kmaqs have been eating this excellent vegetarian source of B vitamins since long before the Europeans arrived. I discovered that on modern-day Prince Edward Island, seaweed consumption has mostly faded away. But after asking around, I found bags of dried dulse at the table of Oceanna Seaplants at the Charlottetown Farmers Market. Dr. Irene Novaczek, a marine ecologist who grew up in nearby Nova Scotia, co-owns the business with her daughter, and she remembers Nova Scotian pubs serving dulse as a snack instead of nuts. One of her favorite ways to enjoy dulse is by toasting the fronds quickly over a small fire on the beach, the seaplant gaining the crispness of bacon.

In New Brunswick, dulse is still prominent at the province’s farmer’s markets. Maine is America’s only commercial dulse outpost, supplying American health food stores with this sea vegetable in flakes (best for soups and smoothies), in granules (a replacement for salt), or in its most snackable form: a bag of fronds dried in an inviting tangle, ready for sharing.

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Queens of the Stone Age’s Latest Album Swaggers and Dances

Villains - Queens of the Stone Age
The term “stoner rock” is one of those swing terms that could serve as either blissful praise or acidic mockery, depending on who is speaking and the tone of voice applied. On one hand, it could describe an arsenal of heavy, hypnotic grooves that excel at outdoor festivals at which joints tend to roam from mouth to mouth. Or, the genre label could peg music that requires an audience of brains helplessly crippled by generous amounts of THC in order to find it palatable (and when the pot runs out, the music starts to suck). Thankfully, Queens of the Stone Age has tended to draw descriptions falling in the former range.

While the band’s eponymous debut offering in 1998 retained echoes of the sludgy rock of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age’s predecessor with the same lineup, the band has shed pieces of the sound—having been honed at the outdoor concerts of the Palm Desert, California scene where the band was born—before each new album. With their latest release, Villains, Queens of the Stone Age seem to have finally left the stoner rock orbit. Either that, or the band has distilled and adapted stoner rock to suit a new sonic landscape: one populated with more dynamic, bite-sized songs that retain some of the repetitious distorted riffs of their long-winded ancestors, but succeed in taking the listener from one place to another.

Either way, listeners may be too busy dancing to bother grabbing the bong when it comes around. For Villains, Frontman Josh Homme engaged in a potentially risky maneuver in enlisting producer and pop specialist Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Adele, Paul McCartney) to barehandedly grab the buzzing mains of the guitar-driven rock Queens of the Stone Age is known for and bring out the inherent danceability of the band’s succulent grooves without neutering them in the process. Then again, the job of any good producer is to enhance, not to alter.

Some diehard elements of Queens of the Stone Age’s fan base may question the more prominent keyboards and the guitars’ lower levels in the mixes. But the keyboards on Villains, while employed more frequently than on the band’s previous albums, keep the cheese out and the rock in. Just as a glossy 80s production did not blunt the poetry of Patti Smith on Dream of Life, Ronson’s rhythm-forward treatment of Villains preserved the band’s sound while amplifying the material’s accessibility, catapulting Villains to number one on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart, repeating the success of their 2013 release, …Like Clockwork.

The encroaching tide of the keyboard intro of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” the album’s lead track, serves to launch the listener head-first into the song’s deliciously nasty funk that sets the album’s boogie-friendly tone. “The Way You Used To Do,” the album’s first single, follows next, the electric-razor buzz of the guitars locking into a tight swing rhythm that is probably already breathing life into many a tiresome swing dancing set (no offense, Benny Goodman).

Exploring a contemplative space that picks up where the soft-loud-soft “Kalopsia” from …Like Clockwork left off, “Fortress” is more of a steady rocker, with its introduction of beckoning ambience leading to the album’s most intimate lyrics (“It ain’t if you fall / But how you rise that says / Who you really are / So get up and go through” and “If ever your fortress caves / You’re always safe in mine”). The uplifting song’s mere five and a half minutes may singlehandedly scare off some of the band’s old-guard fans, but I suspect the band will simultaneously gain many more. At their recent concert at Madison Square Garden, Homme spotted a couple arguing in the pit and used the opportunity to stress what the band is all about: “We’re not the soundtrack for your fighting,” Homme said, “We’re the soundtrack for your fucking.” Perhaps “Fortress” will become part of the related soundtrack for pillow talk.

Elsewhere, under Ronson’s clear, breathable production, familiar Queens of the Stone Age stylistic elements flex and strut. There are the requisite false endings; highway-friendly songs (known in some quarters as speeding music), most notably “Head like a haunted house,” whose furious pulse evokes late 70s punk with a touch of glam, an unsurprising outcome considering that Homme had just finished touring with Iggy Pop before recording Villains; and a scattering of Bowie-esque flashes–the chugging “Diamond Dogs” saxophone on “Un-Reborn Again,” the cruising beat redolent of “Suffragette City” at the finale of “The Evil Has Landed.”

Stoner rock has traditionally nourished itself from the proto-metal wells of the 70s and grunge of the 90s, handily skipping the 80s. Queens of the Stone Age rolls out what is perhaps the most damning departure from such a standard in the closing track, “Villains of Circumstance,” in which the singalong chorus reveals hints of Roxy Music’s falsetto hook in “More Than This” from 1982.

Villains is an album for those unafraid of the evolution and cross-pollination of rock music. Dancing is optional. And so is the pot.

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Cyprus’ Newest (and Ugliest) Ruins

With the world’s current flash points, it may be easy to forget one of the longest running conflict areas: Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invaded the island nation–home to Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities, some of them mixed–in response to a Greek-instrumented coup. Turkey has since occupied a strip of the island’s northern side. After I visited Varosha, a Greek-Cypriot neighborhood fenced off by the Turkish military since the beginning of the occupation, I wrote “The Concrete Corpses of Cyprus,” in which I consider the effects of political obstinacy while reflecting on an unexpected connection between military zones and fast food. The piece is my latest for Perceptive Travel.

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The Artichoke: It’s Earth’s Own Game Show

For me, the artichoke used to be an abstract horticultural object—a bodiless head, existing in its own peculiar realm detached from other vegetables, part pine cone, part tropical flower, part grade-B sci-fi prop. Then I found one poking up in the middle of a spiky spread of leaves in my mother’s garden in Connecticut earlier this month. We had mostly forgotten about the plant whose seed we had buried in the soil two years ago, a seed that each year had produced that proud-looking foliage, an unapologetic hog of personal space, admirable in its own right, but no artichokes. Until now.

The timing for the artichoke’s grand entrance seemingly employed a dose of well-played drama, but its most memorable statement was the plant itself. There was something rewarding about watching an artichoke growing. Pointing toward the sky from the center of the plant, the globe was no longer a severed head of curiosity, and its life cycle was finally laid bare. Yes, that thing really is from of this world, despite its unearthly appearance—it’s a variety of species of thistle in the same family as more familiar plants such as the sunflower and the dandelion. It reinforced my connection with the planet, ever tenuous since I moved away from rural life to city life over twenty years ago.

All the more reason to eat it. But there are considerations to make in that department. The artichoke is the Price Is Right of vegetables: to harvest it, you have to guess how big the globe will get without going over the size at which the globe starts to open and bloom, because at that point, it becomes too tough to eat. And you want the globe to get as big as it can because as any artichoke fan knows, the heart, the only edible part along with a little of the stem, is pitifully small compared to the size of the globe itself. Sometimes the heart stands barely taller than a stack of a half dozen poker chips. So much work for so little reward. No wonder canned artichoke hearts are more popular than fresh globes. But with the former, you have to accept a flat, metallic flavor as your price for convenience.

I harvested our first artichoke when it was about the size of a large lemon (not sure if that was good enough to win the showcase showdown), so I am generous in calling it a side dish, let alone one for two adults and a child. After opening the globe with my fingers and stuffing it with slivers of garlic and adding olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and then wrapping it in foil, I roasted it for an hour and served it with a yellow bell pepper/chili pepper cream sauce for dipping the base of the petals, where little pieces of the heart hunker down.

The stack of spent petals filled a whole plate when we finally reached the prize of the artichoke, the heart. It was dense yet tender, free of bitterness, and patty-shaped, as if it were trying to pass as a subtly sweet veggie burger. I could have eaten it in one bite. Better yet, I could have combined the two previous observations and made an artichoke heart slider out of it. That may happen in the future, but this time, I cut it up like the world’s smallest pizza.

So what did the Chowder Boy think of it? The first spoonful I served him contained some of the pepper sauce, whose spiciness he did not seem to care for. But when I served him a piece of the heart by itself, he engaged his pointing finger towards the heart to indicate “keep it coming.” Sadly, only one piece of the heart remained, and I gave it to him. Sorry, son, you’ll have to wait until the next one is ready for harvest, just like the rest of us.

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