“Anything you can do, I can do just as well” seems to be the motto of the close but competitive Wainwright family. Two years after Rufus Wainwright released his mammoth tribute to Judy Garland, little sister Martha has taken another iconic figure as inspiration for her new album.
Edith Piaf is undoubtably one of the great musical icons of the 20th century, and arguably the best French singer of all time. So it’s a brave woman who attempts to cover her – her songs are so worn into the French national psyche that any cover version is in danger of being dismissed as irrelevant. There’s also the fact that you have to be a pretty remarkable singer to equal Piaf’s legendary vocals – especially if you’re not French.
So it’s an ambitious project, but Wainwright more than pulls it off. Firstly, she’s a terrific vocalist herself – anyone who’s heard her rendition of Dis Quand Reviendras Tu will know just how comfortable and expressive she is with the French language. Also, she cannily avoids Piaf’s more well known numbers, instead opting to tackle some rare and unheard material.
So, instead of La Vie en Rose, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Milord, there are numbers that even hardcore Piaf completists may struggle to recognise. It also helps enormously that the album was recorded over three nights live in New York with a band who are masters at recreating the smokey intimacy that Piaf songs require.
La Foule opens up the album, a lovely waltz perfectly sung by Wainwright who manages to imbue the song with the requisite amount of yearning and heartbreak while also perfectly pronouncing the French lyrics. Adieu Mon Coeur, a long standing highlight of Wainwright’s live show, follows and is, if anything, even better – a simple, frail piano ballad which swoops and soars magnificently.
The recreation of European cabaret is immaculate: accordions weep, pianos softly play, and you can almost imagine 1930s Parisians softly sobbing in the audience through the plumes of cigarette smoke. Yet Wainwright doesn’t even attempt to impersonate Piaf – instead she’s unmistakably her own woman throughout, sounding utterly at home with the material (as you’d expect from someone with a French-Canadian background).
Although the general atmosphere is that of tear-stained ballads, Wainwright mixes up the mood a bit, being suitably stirring on L’Accordeoniste (possibly the only track which casual Piaf fans will recognise), joyous and defiant on Non, La Vie N’est Pas Triste, and even frantically jaunty on Le Metro de Paris. Throughout the album though, Wainwright embues each song with a great deal of emotion, making this album more a celebration of Piaf’s songs, rather than a simple covers project.
It probably won’t be everyone’s tasse de the – longterm Wainwright fans will miss those causticly personal lyrics that she specialises in, and any Francophobes will run screaming at the sheer Gallicness of it all. However, it does make a perfect introduction to the works of one of French music’s true legends, and in Wainwright’s hands, it’s crafted with obvious love and affection.