Paris Combo take care to explain that their latest and possibly final album Quesaco – streaming at Bandcamp – is Covid-free. Notwithstanding the record’s characteristically slinky good cheer, there’s a tragic backstory. Like so many albums recorded in 2019, it was scheduled for release the following year. But their tour fell victim to the totalitarian takeover, and frontwoman/accordionist Belle de Berry died s that fall, soon after a cancer diagnosis. Would she be alive today if there had been no lockdown and she could have received early treatment? We’ll never know.
At least she went out at the top of her game. The band open with the album’s title track, Provençal slang for “what’s up?” It’s a lush, Balkan-tinged swing nocturne packed with cynical rhymes, beginning with a sun, who as du Berry tells it, doesn’t give a fuck about the approaching nightfall. It aptly capsulizes her indomitable, deviously playful worldview.
Paris Combo first took shape as a Romany-tinged swing band but quickly developed a distinctively upbeat, often witheringly satirical blend of sophisticated art-rock, jazz manouche and cinematic pop. Including this one, they put out a grand total of seven albums: all of them are worth getting your hands on.
The second track on this one is Barre Espace, du Berry’s gently caustic commentary on the atomization that inevigtably awaits those who abandon the real world for the virtual one. Bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac, drummer François Jeannin and percussionist Rémy Kaprielan lay down a pillowy. understated cumbia groove for pianist David Lewis and guitarist Potzi.
They stroll briskly through Seine de la vie parisienne, du Berry’s puns beginning with the title, Potzi taking a spiky, Djangoesque solo midway through. She reaches for a reggaeton-inspired delivery over Lewis’ organ and trumpet in Panic á bord (rough translation: Breaking Point), a bouncy but brooding Balkan/cumbia mashup.
Maudit money (Damn Money) is part hip-hop, part oldschool 70s disco, part Manu Chao, with a wry Nancy Sinatra reference. Du Berry holds off on the WWI references until the end of Premiére guerre as she contemplates a more psychological, interior battle, rising from balmy and lingering to a triumphant strut and then back.
Shivery strings and soaring trumpet interchange in Axe imaginaire (Imaginary Path, or close to it), a subtle battle-of-the-sexes metaphor. The band go back to a disco stroll in Cap ou pas cap (slang for “yes or no?”), Lewis’ trumpet sputtering and Potzi’s guitar spiraling over a sleek backdrop and du Berry’s coy enticement.
Guitar and trumpet reach for a simmering flamenco ambience over a suspenseful, cumbia-tinged groove in Tendre émoi (this one’s hard to translate: “tender confrontation” or “make a scene, tenderly” would work, prosaically). Du Berry takes a rare turn into English on track ten, Do you think, as the band go back to a bittersweet cumbia sway. They close the record with the low-key, reflective Romany swing shuffle Paresser par ici (rough translation: Hanging Around). Maybe someday if we’re lucky we can get a retrospective live album out of this fantastic and underappreciated band. And even if we don’t, this is one of the best of 2022 so far.