Sunday, December 02, 2007

The French Girl Connection

I’m going through a wannabe-Canadian stretch. It started when I picked up a two-LP Best of Ian and Sylvia set recently. Then, last week, I stopped in at an anomalous local Canadian-American diner and had both poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy – the signature French-Canadian junk food) and creton (head cheese) for the first time. I haven’t dusted off my Margaret Atwood books or anything, but it’s coming close. I think a bottle of Maudite is in order.
Canadians hold a special place in the Driftwood cosmos – Leonard Cohen, Buffy St. Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Rick Danko, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Rush, Tegan & Sara, Feist, Black Mountain, they all have the mass to generate gravitational pull. My relationship with Ian and Sylvia is a little more complicated; I feel like an abused spouse when it comes to I & S. We had something once, but every time I go back looking for the spark of love, I get wounded, or else I’m left wondering what was there to begin with.

For a group seemingly renowned for their paired voices, the vocal harmonies are awfully peculiar – more a distracting tugging apart than a coming together. The way Sylvia’s singing fails to match up with Ian’s – more in a tonal, harmonic sense than in a rhythmic, phrasing one – reminds me of color separation in poorly done printing. It’s like the yellow bleeds out around the edge and overrides the red, or you can plainly see the two component parts instead of the other third color they’re supposed to make. Even that effect has its fans.

I posted Gene Clarke’s superior version of Ian and Sylvia’s "The French Girl" not long ago. I mentioned that Dylan and the Dead had allegedly rehearsed that tune when they were playing together in 80s. What I hadn’t realized was that Dylan also recorded versions of "The French Girl" during the Basement Tapes sessions (The Genuine Basement Tapes Vol. 5). On the Dylan disc, "The French Girl" comes right after "Four Strong Winds," another Ian and Sylvia tune, so he must have been having a I & S mini set. The inclusion of "The French Girl" on the Basement Tapes, which were used as demos for songs that lots of other artists covered, makes me wonder if Gene Clarke got the idea to cover the Ian and Sylvia based on hearing the Dylan versions. No telling. But it does sound like Clarke lifted the bass figure from the Ian and Sylvia version, which was arranged, incidentally, by Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals (oddball side note: Ian and Sylvia’s 1970 cult country rock album/band The Great Speckled Bird was produced by Todd Rundgren; and I think there’s not-so-great bonus footage of them on the DVD of Festival Express).

"The French Girl" - Ian & Sylvia

"The French Girl" - Bob Dylan

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