by Michael McCarthy
Welcome to the first installment of Lollipop's new music column, The Import Zone, within which I shall ramble about, well, imported compact discs. Some of them will be Japan-only releases of determined North American metal bands whose albums are not presently being released domestically. More will be eclectic Brit pop/rock releases that have yet to - and might never - garner a domestic release. I'll also cover the latest - and some classic - releases by French, Italian, and Japanese artists, among others.
Since these releases take a little extra effort to hunt down and are hardly being shoved down your throat by the corporate record labels of America, I'll focus on the good stuff. After all, there's little point in warning you about a lousy artist you're not likely to buy anyway, right? But if I can steer you in the direction of some great releases you might otherwise never hear about, then I think this column will satisfy us all.
The first artist I feel obligated to prattle about is a French woman by the name of Vanessa Paradis. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because she's currently enjoying the status of being Johnny Depp's girlfriend, and is in fact expecting a child with him. Previously, she was linked to Lenny Kravitz, who produced one of her albums, but more on that later.
Before she ever released an album, a rather young Vanessa had a major hit single in 1987 in the way of "Joe Le Taxi," a simple yet catchy pop tune that was as popular in England as it was in France. The follow up, "Manolo Manolete," was anything but a hit, prompting many to deem Vanessa a one-hit-wonder already. However, critics were mistaken. In 1988, Polydor released Vanessa's debut album, M & J, including "Joe Le Taxi" and forgetting the already forgotten "Manolo Manolete." Four additional singles were released, including "Maxou," "Marilyn & John," and "Coupe Coupe." Written by Franck Langolff (music) and Etienne Roda Gil (lyrics), the album holds up surprisingly well today. Admittedly, Vanessa's voice sounds rather little-girlish and the lyrics are mostly silly (see "Mosquito"), but the musicianship keeps it intact. Besides, we're hardly talking about Debbie Gibson tripe: these songs bear rock, jazz, and even blues influences, many sporting sax solos where most American pop artists of the day would've inserted a silly synth riff or generic guitar solo. Still, I must digress and advise you not to buy M & Junless you already own and adore Vanessa's other releases, her discography only getting better as one goes down the list.
Vanessa's second album, Variations Sur Le Meme T'Aime, was released in 1990, and met with much controversy. While Franck Langolff again provided the music, the lyrics were written by the notorious, scruffy Serge Gainsbourg, and the innocence of Vanessa's previous work was all but absent here. To contrast, in the video for M & J's "Maxou," a giddy Vanessa is seen playing with a cute little kitten. On the back cover of Variations, an almost somber Vanessa holds an adult cat that appears to be jumping from her arms as she pats it. A more blatant difference was "Tandem," a more rocking number, the gritty black and white video for which just reeks of sex, and in fact sports a topless female guitar player. Then there were the rumors about Vanessa and the much, much older Serge. All you really need to know is that the album is near brilliant. In terms of her singing, Vanessa's voice is in a magical place. On "L'Amour A Deux" and "Tandem," she sounds much more mature, as was to be expected as she got a little older, but she also sounds a bit mischievous. And on "La Vague A Lames" and "Flagrant Delire," there's a melancholy that took Vanessa to another level. There was also her cover of Lou Reed's famous transvestite tale, "Walk On The Wild Side," which sounds as though she sang it with a smirk on her face. Only "Amour Jamais" and "Ardoise" are unmemorable.
After the success of Variations, some of Vanessa's French fans started to turn on her, as pop fans in the United States often do to their stars seemingly overnight. And then Serge died. Vanessa had apparently met Lenny Kravitz backstage at one of his shows and decided to look him up in New York. Before anyone knew what was going on, Kravitz had summoned his band and was writing, producing, and performing on Vanessa's third album, which would be entirely in English and self-titled. The disc was released in 1992 worldwide, even in the United States. Unfortunately, despite critics' praise, radio and MTV didn't notice. After all, grunge was the fashion of the day and Vanessa's album was a throwback to the '50s, '60s and '70s, albeit a very impressive one. "Be My Baby," a bubblegum, Motown-esque tune, was the first single and became a huge hit throughout Europe. Probably even more bubblegum, though tremendously catchy, was the second single, "Sunday Mondays," which was once compared to the music of The Partridge Family. The rest of the disc consists mostly of touching little ballads like "Lonely Rainbows," though the scorching opener, "Natural High," is probably Vanessa's best song to date, her voice sounding powerful and Kravitz's production even superior to his own albums.
Vanessa's fourth and most recent release is 1994's Vanessa Paradis Live. (She's spent recent years focusing on her acting career.) Backed by Kravtiz's band, Vanessa hit the road for the first time and took France by storm. The album's 16 tracks include all of her hits, freely mixing her French and English tracks. And, as any respectable live album must, it also contains a pair of covers, a rocking rendition of the French classic "Les Cactus," and an oh-so-sweet version of the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By." Normally, I'd never recommend a live disc as an introduction to an artist, but this is easily the exception. While it doesn't sound especially raw, there is certainly a relaxed vibe that breathes new air into most of the songs, particularly "Marilyn & John" and "Joe Le Taxi," which also benefit from the superior musicianship of Kravitz's band. These performances also take the guilt out of listening to Vanessa's earlier hits since her voice has fully developed by this point, no longer leaving room for comparisons to young pop stars best forgotten. On the contrary, if Vanessa never made another album, Vanessa Paradis Live would always be a fantastic way to remember her. Fortunately, I understand she's putting the finishing touches on a new album as we speak in hopes of releasing it late in 1999 or early 2000.