Although the Jacques Brel catalog has seen extensive re-invigoration in the early 2000s, it's also important to look back a little further, to this mid-'90s reissue of the early, classy-beyond-classic Grand Jacques. A marvelous disc which keeps the original running order of the vinyl, Grand Jacques is, in hindsight, a masterful collection of songs recorded during 1955 and 1956 at the beginning of Brel's storied career, and a glimpse into a style of chanson that he seldom returned to once he'd swept France, Europe, and then the States with his best-known classics just a couple years later. While Brel already has a strong sense of his lyric and arrangement, this kind of writing only comes once in a great while. But what is perhaps most interesting about Grand Jacques is how spare and minimal it is. These songs date to the years before Brel began working with longtime arrangers Gérard Jouannest and Françoise Rauber, and therefore, the 12 songs lack the sweeping orchestration that would punctuate the singer's later work. And that is the utter joy of this set. From the title track and the stunningly sparse "Il Pleut Les Carreaux" and on to the utterly provincial "C'est Comme Ca," this is unmistakably Brel. The delivery is perhaps not as theatrical as it would become, but it is Brel nonetheless. While most of these early songs faded from Brel's set list as they were replaced with more sophisticated and often more passionate numbers (bar the still stirring "Il Nous Faut Regarder"), the appearance of "Le Diable (Ca Va)" will delight Brel-ophiles who are most familiar with the particular classic via much later, and much different, cover versions -- think Marc Almond. Here, however, the song is recorded as it was originally envisioned, presented not so much as a song, but a musical monologue on some crazy stage. It's a treat to savor. There aren't any bonus tracks to satisfy the urge to horde, but still it's a godsend that these now-obscure songs won't be left to languish. ~ Amy Hanson
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