Monday, March 1, 2010

From under a Paris lamplight - Edith Piaf

It’s pretty hard to know what to write about Edith Piaf, without sounding trite or repeating what everyone else has already said, or both. And it’s not easy to know where to begin in choosing her recordings, either – especially for someone like me who has fairly chronic compilationphobia. But, of course, Edith Piaf died before the LP had scarcely been born and, in any event, her music is too central both to the love of music and to its history to avoid taking the leap, choosing something from the 50 million “best of” albums of her music, and giving her a spot in this blog.

I eventually settled on an amazingly cheap 3CD compilation from EMI, with 72 tracks and 3 hours and 46 minutes of music. In some ways, it does a disservice to Piaf to have so much of her music here in one place. She sang in a time where music was performed and savoured in songs rather than in albums, and it easy to skim over the trees when there is so much wood to navigate through, and to gasp at.

But, even so, hearing Piaf like this, track after track, you find yourself so plunged into those grim, impoverished French streets of the 40s and 50s, that their shadows begin to seem familiar, and you begin to feel almost a sense of comfort and home beneath that smoky streetlamp under which legend, if not history, said that she was born, and to which her voice, so full of unpretentious, unromanticised tragedy, strident and yet defenceless, always seems to return.

Piaf’s voice is, of course, one of the most recognisable (and, incidentally, one of the most imitated) in popular music. And yet it is perhaps also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite musical, in any traditional sense, and yet when it sings, it is almost impossible to imagine the song sung differently; it’s not quite a strong voice, but it has guts; and its emotions are harsh and raw, yet still always quivering in their vulnerability. But none of that is quite it, either. Piaf’s voice, like her music, is what it is not because of the sum of its parts, but because of the grubby, smoke-filled bars on grubby, smoke-filled streets, in which it has its roots. This is music that belongs as much to the French underclass, as it does to Edith Piaf.

It says a lot about Piaf’s artistry that you can assemble a selection of 72 of her best, and still feel that you haven’t had enough. There’s a good deal of territory traversed in Piaf’s musical output and, while pretty well all of it might be steeped in shadows, you see here just how many shades there are there. There’s the strident, sardonic march of ‘Padam, Padam’; the haunting, tolling knell of ‘Les Trois Cloches’; the operatic grandeur of ‘Miséricorde’, the harsh irony of ‘Bravo Pour Le Clown’, the sad emptiness of ‘L'Accordéoniste’, the caustic dance of ‘Milord’, the brave resolve of ‘Exodus’, and, of course, the famous staples, like Piaf’s early signature ‘La Vie En Rose’, and her later ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, both bringing their own little slithers of hope and light, frail and yet determined, in through the smoke and fog.

And yet for me it’s not so much these shifts and changes of nuance that hold me captive with Piaf, but more her wonderful ability to use her voice to conjure up not only a time and a place, but a whole social milieu, a whole way of life, of struggle, of poverty, and of grim, gritty resolve to survive against whatever odds the more privileged classes have left you. So, even if you don’t understand a word of French (which I don’t) and even if the CD doesn’t come with words and translations (which mine didn’t), you know what these songs are saying to you.

Edith Piaf has, of course, been covered and biographed (and blogged, no doubt) more than probably any other popular singer – but, ultimately, it’s her music that tells her story the best of all, and that pays her the greatest tribute.

72 songs on 3CDs for $10 might seem an incredible bargain, and it is – but I can’t help but notice that there’s a 20CD set, apparently as close as you can get to being a complete survey of her work, floating around the internet shops too …

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