Kerval is the second non-English artist I’ve reviewed for this Dylan covers project, and also the second French one after the quite good Aufray Chante Dylan from 1965. Where Aufray’s effort was very much based in a skiffle beat sound, Kerval updates the template a little to a slightly ‘cleaner’ version of the Blonde on Blonde sound. The track selection here is good too – about nine of the twelve cover versions here have not been covered on any of the ‘whole album’ Dylan cover albums reviewed on this blog so far. Here, we’ve got seven songs from Blonde On Blonde, three from New Morning and two from Self-Portrait.
The Kerval album is pretty good, by and large. For the most part it makes a decent effort to cover Dylan in the rock and roll mode. There’s a full band here making use of a wide enough range of instruments to keep these true to the originals and always interesting. Seems the French do a far better job of covering Dylan than the English, that’s for sure, although the John Schroeder album wasn’t too bad. Kerval’s translations aren’t quite as perfectly Dylan-metered as Aufray’s. Where Hugues Aufray was able to sing Dylan in French but maintain a sense of timing as good as the original songs, Kerval’s translations are just a little more of a mouthful. Every now and then syllables are rushed to fit into the structure, but not in a way that seriously distracts.
Kerval doesn’t have the uniquest of singing voices, but he’s more than competent. It’s probably not the singing per se, but that his voice isn’t particularly strong or distinctive, though having said that, he kicks bland Dave Travis’s butt right out of the stadium. In short, if you know French (which I don’t) and you like Dylan, then this is definitely one of the better Dylan cover albums released between the years 1964-71.
Interlude (Winterlude)…sounds like an old French sea shanty with its woozy rhythm and pump organ’s light offerings while Kerval rolls his tongue around the syllables. Having played it back to back with Dylan’s slightly lackluster version from New Morning, I realize I much prefer this one. It’s got a lovely little light acoustic guitar part. Very short at two minutes.
Va Ton Chemin J’irai Le Mien (Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)…it’s the cello that makes this song so good. It’s quite a light thing, floating along on its easy melody. The French lyrics make it sound humourous – there seems to be a lot of long ‘u’ sounds in the song. The electric guitar playing here is great – lots of fast delicate notes in the instrumental break. The song really only has three sections. I would say that while it sounds pretty good, it’s possibly a little too smooth – lacks that authentic Blonde On Blonde sound.
Miss Marie (Absolutely Sweet Marie)…roars into action on bass and organ, and again, the edges of Dylan’s version are beveled off a little too much, such that this ends up sounding like a competent soulless cover version. Sounds much better with the volume up because there’s a lot of detail in here that needs whittling out to give the song character. Perhaps it’s the studio musicianship, but the main thing I’m aware of as I listen to this, not wanting to compare it too much to Dylan, is that these sound a lot more polished. What makes Blonde On Blonde so great is precisely that wild freedom you hear in the songs and the ‘first-take’ feel, and the space between the instruments. Whereas here we’re getting what are surely very well rehearsed versions that lose something of the immediacy of Dylan’s recordings. This kind of thought only arises though because they’ve chosen to play them so close to the original, in terms of style, and thus Kerval opens himself up for that kind of criticism.
Comme Une Vraie Femme (Just Like A Woman)…has female backing vocals which sound great and add something new to the song. It really works – it has a little of the old Bonnie and Clyde feel to it. The background singers are lush and sexy – reminds me very much of Air, that Sexy Boy kind of sound. That little instrumental interlude at the end of each verse here is gorgeous. Kerval gets quite carried away here, yelling out lines with aplomb. He’s much more ‘French’ sounding than Hugues Aufray, who had a rawer sound to his voice. Kerval’s enunciation is much more classic style French, delicate, full of linguistic flourishes. By that I mean a non-French speaker’s idea of what high-style French would sound like.
Le Chimpanze Noir (Obviously Five Believers)…is more rock and roll, with a great rumbling organ sound, and a really strong bass and tearing riffs on the electric guitar. Loud, groovy, very cool sounding. The electric guitar starts getting wilder and wailing towards the end, with what sounds like a heavily treated electric bass, deep and resonant. Even the drummer has little fills here and there which are also very elaborate. This is seriously good stuff.
En Quatre Temps (Fourth Time Around)…sounds like Norwegian Wood, but I’ve always thought that about Dylan’s version too. Here even more so because I don’t understand the lyrics, I could have easily been fooled if I’d heard this out of context. The Spanish-sounding guitar in this is really intricate, and there’s a haunting flute section which plays with the piano, creating a beautifully swoony kind of effect. You feel like a seagull flying across the Mediterranean against a backdrop of white stucco houses high on a cliff top facing the sea. It’s quite a stunning version that’s given me a whole new perspective on this song. Very impressive.
Je T’aime (I Want You)…sounds almost identical to Dylan’s version until Kerval comes flying in with a mouth full of too many syllables. I read an article on the difficulty of translating Dylan lyrics into French (you can find the link to it at the end of this review) and the analyst showed that generally French needs about 20~30% more syllables to say the same thing, which means the meter is always going to be out. Kerval has a much smoother voice than Dylan of course, so it makes it quite bearable, almost adding a fresh quality, an innovative twist on the songs. Must mention the harmonica here too, which sounds great. Very poppy, catchy, plays it straight, nice.
L’Homme Qui Est En Moi (The Man In Me)…and now we move out of Blonde On Blonde territory to see whether Kerval can bring something groovy to songs that sort of drift by unmemorably on albums like New Morning and Self-Portrait. Here we get the backing female vocal again. I can’t help feeling Kerval milks the melody here much better than Dylan did – it’s his singing, he’s a better singer than Dylan, only in the sense of tone of voice, hitting notes easily, and the smooth way he’s able to vary his voice musically.
J’ai Mal Pour Toi (It Hurts Me Too)…opens on a heavy plucked bass until fiddly electric notes join in. This track off Self-Portrait isn’t a song I’m all that familiar with so I played it earlier today and I have to say, this Kerval version kicks Dylan’s butt. This is much more adventurous, more lively instrumentation, and that bass line is nothing short of amazing. Part of the melody is played in a jazzy organ style too which sounds really contemporary.
Anticipation (Temporary Like Achilles)…has that jaunty strong beat in support of the catchy melody. Why is this called ‘Anticipation’ though? Weird. There’s a really Dylanesque jazzy piano part. The vocal is absolutely convincing once again. Kerval is really comfortable in his skin with these songs, like utterly confident, and you’d have to be. That was the problem with the John Schroeder singer, Chris – while he was a perfectly capable singer, he still sounded a little green singing Dylan, but Kerval has a large catalogue preceding this album, and it’s his modus operandi – interpreting and translating old traditionals so the chap clearly knows what he’s doing. This is good.
A L’Amour (New Morning)…and I’ll say it again, these versions seems to walk all over Dylan’s. They’re just more lively and exciting, and even this song, which never really appealed to me that much, here sounds incredible. There’s this intrusion from some…sound…I don’t even know what it is, oh like a creaky brass instrument which is so cool. “Ah-aaaah la mu / Ah-aaaah la mu.” And the electric guitar solo and that strange brass sound all add up to make this incredible. I’m not making this up. This is easily one of the best collection of Dylan covers I’ve heard, especially when he’s taking lesser material and making it matter.
Belle Isle (Belle Isle)…is virtually an unmemorable traditional sounding ditty stuck in the middle of Self Portrait. It’s a bit sappy in my opinion, and Kerval sticks horrible orchestral strings all through it which just ups the sap factor tenfold. You would never guess in a million years this was a Dylan song if you’d never heard Self Portrait. But again, while I don’t much like the song, Kerval brings life to it. Dylan’s version was always a bit dull – a second rate ballad-type that he’d already done brilliantly on his early 60s albums and would do again so well on his early 90s albums, but which in 1971 sounded dreary.
A quick recap then—I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this. Firstly, it needs to be turned up so you can catch all the detail – there really is a lot of work put into this. I wish he’d used those backing singers more regularly. No, it doesn’t share the raw majesty of Dylan’s mid-sixties sound, it’s a little too polished for that, but when Kerval channels Dylan’s Nashville Skyline voice (Kerval tends towards crooning) he takes sub-standard Dylan songs and makes something out of them. He mines the true melody from those songs, brightens them and holds them up and says, look these are actually great songs if they’re played in the right spirit.
Serge Kerval was born in 1939 and died in 1998, which would have made him 32 when he made this record and 59 when he carked it. Seems he was more of a covers artist than songwriter; “primarily interpreter of traditional songs” says Wikipedia. Released his first album in 1961 and his last in 1996. Not a bad run then. From another online article in English we get, “Kerval has been called a French-language Pete Seeger, a performer who has spent his career resurrecting and recording the songs of France’s past and spreading them far beyond the country’s borders.”
HERE is a really cool article on the difficulties and problems of translating and singing Dylan in French.