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Coachella 2010: Swooning with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Spoon gets feisty

April 18, 2010 |  9:34 pm

Charlotte3_l142oqnc Journalists enjoy a few perks at Coachella, but none more important than the free admission, and, if your company is paying, a clean bed at a decent hotel. With a ticket that topped off above $300, numerous fest-goers this weekend have asked me if I would have sprung for the trip had duty not called.

The answer is yes, and the reason is simple: Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The French singer/actress doesn't really tour, unless, of course, one counts publicity trips to support foreign films. Yet in those moments, she doesn't have an exquisite five-piece band behind her, making her current trek around the U.S. in support of her recently released "IRM" a rare one. With no Los Angeles date on her current docket, at least not one that's been revealed or leaked, Coachella was the artist's local stop.

Having a chance to see the artist perform, therefore, is a treat. That's not to say there weren't questions heading into this set. Her "IRM," produced by Beck, is an oddly enchanting mix of real and organic sounds, with weird rhythms and seductive electronics. Few albums can turn the sound of an MRI machine into a trance groove, but "IRM" does it, and Gainsbourg's wispy -- OK, it's sometimes plain -- voice gives the anxiety-probing lyrics a matter-of-fact grace. Yet there's also the sense that it's a studio album, and Coachella's tent stages can be treacherous terrain for such perfectly constructed art-pop songs.

It was the first album of 2010 that I fell in love with, and at this point it would be disingenuous if I didn't reveal that I stood in line for 25 minutes to meet Gainsbourg and have her sign her latest vinyl single at Coachella's pop-up record store. It's unbecoming, perhaps, for a music critic to indulge in such a way, but this was one instance where I wasn't going to make any effort to suppress my fandom.

If that means those reading will no longer believe me when I note that Gainsbourg's set was one of the most captivating 45 minutes of music I experienced at Coachella, then so be it. Opening straight-away with her title track "IRM," Gainsbourg and her band added a little live aggression to the songs, which served not to destroy the subtle moments but instead worked to add tension.

Electronic loops, and a surprisingly fierce guitar from Nicole Morier, greeted Gainsbourg when she sang, "Can you see a memory?" Things didn't get any less taut when she and her band went into "Greenwich Mean Time," where hand-clap breakdowns would come out of nowhere and playful taps of a xylophone would sound more and more intrusive as the song went on.

Gainsbourg, working a keyboard and a single drum, was stoic for much of the set but cut loose a little on "Trick Pony," with its rhythmic stomp and cries of "He don't know me at all." An electronic hum moved through the song like a vulture. It's claustrophobic, yet it still manages to find a groove, and it could easily double as a soundtrack to a runway fashion show.

In one of the few songs not off "IRM" that Gainsbourg performed, she sang, "You haven't even scratched the surface, but you're digging through my bones." But as evident from cuts such as "Heaven Can Wait," which survived just fine without Beck's backing vocals, Gainsbourg revealed that she's not only willing to open the wound but create a mess inside it. As the song built to a rhythmic finale, Gainsbourg let loose a smile, but not until she was recklessly pounding away at the drum beside her.  

Other notes from Coachella's third day:

There are times when Coachella feels as if it exists in an alternate universe. A hit overseas, Florence + the Machine was promptly ignored in the United States; but the band, led by red-haired vixen Florence Welch, had a crazily packed show at one of Coachella's side tents. No way, no how, was anyone getting near the Brit, whose soulful wailing carried beyond the tent's boundaries. The act's harp tones, however, did not. No matter, Florence + the Machine had hundreds clapping, jumping and singing along, and after she sang the soul cover "You've Got the Love," a fan insisted to this writer that it would be a hit. With its hands-in-the-air exuberance and simple vocal hook, one was inclined to believe him.

Over on Coachella's main stage, indie-rock heroes Spoon played to perhaps their biggest crowd ever. Such minimal songs can be a tough sell on the main stage, but Spoon had help, with members of White Rabbits and Deerhunter's Bradford Cox joining the band for "Who Makes Your Money," a moody cut off its new album "Transference." Later, the band was graced by a horn section on "The Underdog," and here's an indication as to how big the indie rockers have become: When the song came to a close, the band tossed a keyboard on its side. It wasn't exactly Paul Simonon on the cover of "London Calling," but Spoon was clearly making the most of its festival appearance and bringing an extra level of energy to its sparse songs.

It's a shame, then, that much of the crowd bolted when Phoenix took the stage across the field, as much of the audience missed Spoon's "Black Like Me," a slow-building, heartbreaking pop number, with a keyboard that shows off Spoon at its most soulful. On the flip side, few bands carried in the desert air as well as Phoenix, as the band's sunny guitars and glistening keys provided the sundown rock 'n' dance soundtrack that Coachella deserved.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg performs during the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2010. Credit: Charley Gallay / Getty Images