Marianne Dissard

So I recently confessed my undying admiration for Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters' beautiful covers album, nine gorgeously rearranged songs which seamlessly accommodated Tanya's distinctive vocals and the Parkington Sisters' haunting and folk-tinged orchestral hues. So it seems like a good idea to consider another artist who of late has crafted and released a handful of distinct interpretations, all imprinted with their unique artistic and imaginative DNA…

I've written once or twice about the Tucson-cum-Ramsgate chanteuse of all things Chanson-meets-Americana, Marianne Dissard. This rather strange year has seen Marianne rework, reconstruct, deconstruct and reimagine songs from artists as diverse as Phil Ochs' ("The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns"), Janis Ian (majestic 'his' and 'hers' versions of "At Seventeen") and Steely Dan's "Dirty Work"

Plucking-up courage to put virtual pen to virtual paper and review her recent interpretation of Bobbie Gentry's "Refractions" has proven to be a challenge. Originally, the track featured on Gentry's critically acclaimed - if unfortunately commercially overlooked - 1968 Sophomore album "Delta Sweete" and as someone who had only known of her through the synonymous "Ode to Billie Joe", I've had to totally reevaluate my opinion of the artist. Not that there's anything wrong with "Ode to Billie Joe", but as I mentioned in my Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters review, my dad had one of those Country Music compilations… I suspect her record label, Capitol, who must have imagined she'd deliver a follow-up to the Grammy lauded "Ode to Billy Joe", where equally confused…

Normally the first thing I'd do would be to listen to Gentry's original. However, the general consensus of t'interweb was that I should listen to the album in its entirety. I did and I have to say that I wasn't expecting to hear an album as magnificent as that. May be I've just got a mental block whenever I see an album described as "Country"? On first listen - and to reinforce my prejudices - the album has many of those traditional country elements; guitar, harmonica and a smattering of standards from Gentry's youth, "Big Boss Man", "Tobacco Road" and "Louisiana Road".

However, it pays to listen closely. "Louisiana Road" is not a mere cover, instead it is delightfully accompanied and arranged for Mariachi horns and strings. The album itself plays-out like the soundtrack to a semi-autobiographical movie set in the contemporary and poverty-stricken south of the era. And while it does suffer to a degree from some of those big-label production 'values', there's evidence of the influences of rock, psychedelia, folk, and radio-friendly pop genres weaved throughout. There's also a healthy respect paid to the sound of Memphis Soul with the album littered with soulful horns and brass, alongside gorgeous arrangements for orchestral strings. Despite not being credited for the album's production, most of the ideas on it were hers.

As an album and concept It was ahead of its time - unfortunately, at a time when the label's target audience didn't want to stray from their comfort zone and it was for the most part ignored by a distracted and disinterested public. Perhaps, as Bob Stanley wrote for a retrospective in The Guardian; "…America was clearly not ready to roll out the red carpet for the female artist who wrote, played and produced her own material.”

And that would have been that if not for mlle Dissard. Or for that matter - as I discovered while researching this post - indie-rockers Mercury Rev, whose 2019 album "Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited" and which features guest vocals from a diverse range of artists including Blog favourite Phoebe Bridgers, Norah Jones, Laetitia Sadier and Susanne Sundfør, provides a contemporary, yet reverenced, long overdue re-evaluation of this lost and forgotten gem…

The more astute of you may have noticed that I haven't even commented on Marianne's interpretation of "Refractions". Gentry's original is filled with haunting chamber and baroque-pop influences, whispering vocals and subtle flirts with psychedelia. Is she experiencing a dream or is this a premonition? In Mercury Rev's version, Marissa Nadler's vocals are woven with atmospheric sound effects, reinforcing the haunting, psychedelic feel of the original - and accentuating the flawed and disturbed characters associated with the Southern Gothic literary style which has been considered a feature of Gentry's lyricism.

And Gothic is the first adjective that springs to mind when listening to Marianne. Together with producer Raphael Mann, they have deconstructed every element of both the original and Mercury Rev's version and rearranged whole. The darkest of the three, as a soundtrack this is definitely in the film noir or Hitchcockian thriller genre. Thanks to the unsettling sound of squawking seagulls, you're immediately transported from the Mississippi Delta to a desolate monochromatic coastal town (I'm not sure whether Marianne had her adopted home of Ramsgate in mind, although I've alway thought of the coastal towns of the Isle of Thanet as hidden behind the peeling lustre of their faded Victorian elegance). The baroque-pop influences of the original are now the focal point. Cello, violin and clavinet add a theatrical sense of cabaret. Whereas the events of the original appear to have occurred in the immediate past, here it is as if the event is repeatedly being replayed over and over again. Alone in her room, staring out to a point where the grey sea merges into the grey horizon, was she dreaming or is she trapped in a recurring nightmare from which there is no escape?

Now if you're like me, you're asking yourself, why, given her own rich - predominantly - francophone back-catalogue, hasn't Marianne weaved her magic upon a song - a chanson, if you will - originally recorded in the language of Molière?

And now she has - although admittedly recorded back in 2014 - with a remarkably faithful cover of Françoise Hardy's "Le temps de l'amour". As can be alluded to from Marianne's comment in her Bandcamp page "sleeve notes", the original featured in a Wes Anderson movie, in this case "Moonrise Kingdom" and the scene where Suzy and Sam dance on the beach.

The song featured on Hardy's stunning and originally eponymous-titled debut album "Tous les garçons et les filles" (which as I've discovered was bizarrely released in the US as - shudders - "The "Yeh-Yeh" Girl From Paris!"). Here Marianne captures the vitality of the original - surf guitars, rimshots and the bright jazz interludes of Americana collide head-first with Gallic introspection and a touch of the je ne sais quoi as she injects a dash of folclórico to the bright bursts of trumpet which punctuate the song.

Both verions feature many of the classic components of Yé-Yé, yet they both avoid many of the clichés that were later associated with the genre; In the original for example, Françoise's dreamy monotonic vocal style is in contrast to the shrill, excitable tones of her contemporaries and her songs tended not to cast the female as helpless when confronted by the attentions of the male of the species. Her songs spoke of the innocence and often from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in… There's an excellent review of the 2015 re-release in Pitchfork which speaks of the album "Tous les garçons et les filles" as being "frank music for romantic wallflowers".

So while there's a beguiling naiveness to the original (although to be fair Françoise was only 18 at the time of its release), it has to be said that Marianne delivers the song with a glint in her eye. When Françoise sings; "On se dit qu'à vingt ans on est le roi du monde" / "We tell ourselves that at twenty years old we are the king of the world" she is speaking of the here and now. With Marianne there's a delicious tease to her voice in the way she hangs on to every last syllable. She's speaking in the past tense…

I started off with the intention of interpreting Marianne's interpretations of songs originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry and Françoise Hardy, In the end - and just like David Tennant's tenth Doctor, [it] got away from me - I went off on a tangent. I hadn't intended to delve into the career of Bobbie Gentry or revisit Françoise Hardy, one of the artists who initially kindled my interest in "musique" and les filles qui chantent… I've discovered that all three artists have more in common than you might have thought; talented musicians, singer-songwriters-composers, single-minded and with a steely determination to do things on their terms, in their way. Bobbie Gentry had stopped recording before I had even entered my teens. Ultimately, she left the industry on her terms. Françoise Hardy's musical career arguably peaked before I even knew of her, but as her 2018 album "Personne d'autre" demonstrated, age has not diminished her.

Marianne? I'd better be careful what I say here, but just read my previous posts, you'll get the picture…
C'est Marianne… I wonder whose back-catalogue I'll be delving into next?

Marianne Dissard (Website / Bandcamp)