Strange, Clever French Pop from Benjamin Schoos
In French rock, the Cure were for many years what the Beatles were in the Anglophone world: a template for how to do things. So it’s no surprise that Benjamin Schoos’ album Chinaman vs. Chinagirl has a cold 80s sheen, with a couple of tracks that come close to nicking melodies straight from the Robert Smith songbook. But the album is a lot more musically diverse than that. On one hand, it’s partly a teens update on Serge Gainsbourg. In a smooth Gauloise baritone, Schoos talks his way through a pun-infested Chinese wrestling narrative – how’s that for surreal? On the other, it’s artsy 80s pop with chilly faux-retro teens synth timbres keeening and woozing through the mix, sometimes over a stiff new wave beat, sometimes swaying forward another ten years with a trip-hop rhythm.
Do you have to speak French to get this music? As catchy as the tunes are, not necessarily, but to have any appreciation of Schoos’ sense of humor, yes. He’s as influenced by French rap as he is by Gainsbourg – everything is a pun, some of them very funny, some less so. There’s actually hardly anything Chinese about the album, although wrestling – both the real and phony kinds – and boxing serve as recurrent metaphors for guy/girl tension. The album’s bouncy first song, Marquise doesn’t really set the stage – it’s a kiss-off to an ice queen and may have literary or political resonance (a thinly veiled Carla Bruni dis, maybe?). After that, Schoos duets with Laetitia Sadier on a catchy new wave pop song that, predictably, sounds like Stereolab covering the Cure. Profession Catcheur (Pro Wrestler) works a series of jokes – and a particularly amusing one about Margaret Thatcher – into a trip-hop spy theme, followed by the lush, artsy, faux-angsted piano ballad La Chinoise.
The album wouldn’t be French if it didn’t have a fingersnapping faux lounge jazz number, would it? This one’s a snidely satirical portrait of a pop culture maniac: “Some people like the art of smoking, putting on the patch…me, I live only for wrestling,” he tells the world. That prosaic English translation doesn’t do justice to Shoos’ wordplay.
As a centerpiece, the title track is a letdown, ripping off Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. But Schoos gets the jokes going again with Le Combat, sort of a rewrite of the duet with Sadier, this one personifying the idea of love, Schoos insisting that he’s going to kick love’s ass. After that, over ominous, icy chamber pop, Schoos revisits the famous fight between surrealist icon Arthur Cravan and world heavyweight Jack Johnson: “That’s the life I’m embracing, I invite you, my friends, come help with the party, throw a white guy a crumb,” Schoos declares. The album ends with an absolutely evil duet between Chrissie Hynde (who gamely makes an attempt to sing in French) and Marie France, two girls yucking it up about how much they like to make men suffer. There’s a twelfth track, but it’s anticlimactic…and it’s in English.
Who is the audience for this? In English, probably the same crowd who’ve embraced Gainsbourg: silly as much of this album is, it can be a lot of fun. By the way, apropos of the title, “Chinaman” doesn’t carry the racist connotation in French that it does in English. Neither the album nor its tracks seem to have made it to youtube or dailymotion (the French youtube), although it is on Spotify.