When New York experienced its first snowfall of the season, there was nowhere to go but in. The temps may not have dipped dramatically, but with the radiator hissing and comfort in the air it was hard to leave the house. To put a technophile spin on Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan’s ode to staying put, Lindstrøm & Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool makes perfect winter music. As DJ and producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm warms up with psychedelic guitar, Christabelle’s croon, dismissive of cold, tries to shoo her friends out the door with an upbeat “Let’s go,” and “Feels so good.” And I imagine it’s much colder in their native Oslo than New York.
Between Christabelle’s diva spells and Lindstrøm’s inner Moroder, Real Life typifies the other-worldly dance music the latter has perfected in recent years, both solo and with DJ/producer Prins Thomas. The duo’s whims scatter around Real Life like magazine clippings: 80s ladies Vanity 6 here, a VHS copy of Working Girl there. The soft-focus synth opening “Keep It Up” evokes Melanie Griffith striding confidently off the Staten Island ferry, while the bouncy horns and finger cymbals on “Baby Can’t Stop” could bring a statuesque Kim Cattrall to life without the help of Andrew McCarthy. Real Life opens with an antsy Christabelle asking, “What should we do? / Should we start / Looking for what?” The “what” goes unexplained, but Christabelle’s restless voice, if not her improvised lyrics (“Girl, take off your shoes”) say it all: Where’s the fun? “Let’s Practise” reworks “I Feel Love” through its slow burn, as Christabelle’s assorted moans and yelps drift in and out of the frame. In the end she’s a good foil for Lindstrøm’s hypnotic pop, a pretty voice that’s along for the ride.
Lindstrøm was introduced to Christabelle by her musician brother, a friend of the DJ. Their first full-length (following two singles released on his Feedelity label) is the latest in a string of successful meetings between producer and muse, including Sally Shapiro’s My Guilty Pleasure (with producer Johan Agebjörn) and Gui Boratto’s Take My Breath Away, which features his wife, vocalist Luciana Villanova. Even the great Grace Jones resurfaced in 2009, though minus Jean-Paul Goude—in her place, Lady Gaga and her stylist/svengali. But unlike Gaga and her bubble dress there’s no pretense to Christabelle, unless you count her mono-moniker.
Where Lindstrøm & Christabelle connect like water and air, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck are that storied meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and umbrella. The duo’s pedigreed whimsy— Franco-pop princess and a Fluxus prince—comes together on Gainsbourg’s third LP, IRM, which Beck produced. In “Master’s Hand,” physical therapy is cause for spiritual reflection: “Breath out / Come alive / Give me a reason to feel.” The record was conceived after a medical crisis: In 2007 Gainsbourg suffered a minor brain hemorrhage a few weeks after a waterskiing accident. (IRM is a brain scan.) The industrial-toned title track echoes a gurney being rushed through a sterile corridor in slow-motion, and reverberating guitar and drums add a stabilizing heartbeat to her breathy, or breathless, vocals. “Le Chat du Café des Artistes” returns to Gainsbourg’s synth-heavy 5:55 (with Air), and is one of the few chansons on this record. It’s easy to imagine Charlotte and Beck plotting the record over au laits in some haute artistic hangout. Lately, the center of bohemian bonhomie has been Beck’s studio, where he’s been covering the Velvet Underground and Skip Spence records with friends. (The recordings can be found on beck.com.)
Beck’s squiggly imprint is all over IRM, especially the drum-machine-heavy “Greenwich Mean Time,” in which Gainsbourg sounds like she’s phoning in from the Pacific Coast Highway. Part of his appeal as a producer is a reluctance to make her sound too pretty, as she scoffs, “We’re all fine / We stick together like dirty horseflies,” describing a family of drifters. Lightweight “Me and Jane Doe” also deals with restless wandering in the desert. “Me and Jane Doe and Rousseau / We’ve got nowhere to go,” she says of her vagabond crew, but as the song builds beautifully to the sound of glockenspiel and choral reverb they have each other for the journey. Likewise the cabaret-folk duet “Heaven Can Wait,” with its images of fading ingénues and escalators driven “into the ground,” may play with surrealist imagery, but its principal is seeking a fresh start. (“And you left your credentials in a Greyhound station / With a first-aid kit and a flashlight / Going to a desert unknown.”) The dark, bluesy “Trick Pony” makes a rousing low-end clang like yé-yé girls gone-bad. With odes to “sexy eyes” and “C. C. Rider riding,” it recalls a freewheeling period in popular music, before Robert Plant was himself a desert-wandering folkie and the groupies were always with the band. Sometimes it’s not worth leaving the house when you have someone to fool around with.