There's been no recent shortage of film actresses using established indie-rock fellas to diversify their artistic brand identities. Charlotte Gainsbourg, however, was born for this. The Antichrist star, spawn of the downright filthy French-pop power-couple Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, has seemingly always been lending artists her blank appeal. The first of which, her pops, used young Charlotte, aged 12, to produce perhaps the queasiest single of all time in 1984's "Lemon Incest." Her grown-up 2006 full-length, 5:55, made with luminaries like Air, Jarvis Cocker and Nigel Godrich, was more tasteful by default but stayed in a predictable Franco-lounge zone rather than establishing a distinct, post-modern chanteuse. Her new album, IRM, is quite a bit better.
Beck acted as svengali-du-jour, providing writing/production good enough to launch his second career as a graying Serge-esque scoundrel, hit-making for young, impressionable girls. Which is not to say that Gainsbourg sounds naive. Take, for example, the impressive title track (named for the medical imaging equipment, called MRI in English). Beck builds the track on oppressive whirrs, suggesting a musique concrete usage for the apparatus in question. Gainsbourg's nervously impatient deadpan completes the hospital scene, letting her mind wander curiously as the song lurches around her. Beck takes lead only once, on the bar-room duet "Heaven Can Wait," promptly overshadowing her whisper with his recognizable rasp. Realizing that her limited vocal range is amplified by an actor's knack for naturalism, he mainly sticks to the corners.
Gainsbourg's thin, posh-accented English is similar to Birkin's. Beck's carefully eclectic compositions allow her to be much more versatile, though. She plays the basic blues vamp "Dandelion" like a cosmic adrogyne, turning it into a decadent T. Rex jam. She uses similar delivery to rougher effect in the context of dirtier tracks like "Trick Pony" and "Greenwich Mean Time." "Time of the Asssasins" conversely accentuates a twee sweetness. Like in many of her film roles, Gainsbourg exits IRM without revealing much of herself. But she's always had a certain grace, imbuing even her most icky characters with a grounded realism that lets you believe you've seen or heard something casually authentic.