Though Carla Bruni has never failed to enchant front-page editors at European tabloids, her duties as first lady of France precluded her efforts as an artiste in various media—the exception being a spin 'round the Rodin Museum in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. These days, thanks to François Hollande, Bruni has a lot of time to spare. Few heads will turn at another album in homage to French pop of the 1960s (her fourth such), but it's important to note how playful Bruni is on Little French Songs, an album that exudes a sense of liberation. “Liberté, tu dois bien exister,” she sings on “Liberté.” (Translation: “Liberty, you simply must exist.”)
The album's charm is in Bruni's ability to transmit this school's-out-for-summer vibe via patter songs, blasé scats, and conversational dips into her lower register—a confessional, near-sultry technique that evokes an intimacy in keeping with the album's self-conscious but also self-effacing title. The songs here are originals, all but two credited to Bruni alone, including “Le Pingouin,” a delightful, chatty little parable, “Darling,” a well-turned elegy, and “La Valse Posthume,” in which Bruni offers tips on what to do with your feet—tips that work in other situations as well. Throughout, Bruni casually lifts snatches from tunes by her referents, not just Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf, but Charles Aznavour and even Joni Mitchell. These borrowings are to be expected in an homage, and Bruni repurposes them to fine effect in sinusoidal melodies that feel drawn from some forgotten LP in an attic in the Latin Quarter, just before 1968 and all that messy business in Paris.
Bruni deserves points for not phoning it in: Given her status as de facto European royalty, she could have re-recorded “La Vie en Rose,” thrown in some filler, and called it a day. At the same time, she seems aware of her limits. Her upper register isn't terribly strong, so she treads with care, singing with a youthful, tentative precision. Her attitudinal strength as a singer lies in the conversational asides, the conjured sense of closeness. If “Chez Keith et Anita” doesn't deliver the juicy anecdotes about Riviera depravity you might expect from the title, “Lune” offers a touching bit of allegro balladry in a contralto so confident it almost raises goosebumps. Almost. This isn't Bruni's day job (not that she's ever had a day job), and she knows it. But her sense of humor, her impetuous moments at the mic, and her sheer likeability as a vocalist carry Little French Songs, a modestly scaled disc from an otherwise larger-than-life celebrity.