New York Music Daily

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Tag: french music

Les Chauds Lapins For Virgins – Or Not

Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.

The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony.  if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.

The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.

As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.

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A Rare New York Show and a Killer Album from Paris Combo

Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $25 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.

Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.

Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.

Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.

Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just the title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,

Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.

Gay Marshall Channels Parisian Depth and Joie de Vivre at Pangea

Chanteuse Gay Marshall‘s show last night at Pangea turned out to be as memorable and dynamic as Paris itself. It was also riotously funny – a Parisian might call it “marrant à chier.” In a little over an hour onstage, Marshall made good on her promise of a very individualistic musical tour of her adopted hometown, more imbued with knifes-edge intensity and current-day relevance than vaudevillian flair. Opening with a witheringly cynical Dave Frishberg number and closing with classic Piaf, she mined the depth and intensity of half a century’s worth of iconic and obscure chanson. She’s bringing this spectacle back to Pangea for a monthlong, weekly residency, repeating next Tuesday, Oct 25 and then consecutive Wednesdays, Nov 2 and 9 at 7 PM. Cover is $20 in this lowlit, intimate space, the scent of Mediterranean herbs wafting through the room. Most cabaret food sucks; this place is a refreshing exception to that rule.

To say that Marshall’s plushly crystalline, endlessly mutable mezzo-soprano vocals are disarmingly direct is an understatement. Being an actress, you would expect her to sing in character, yet there was zero affectation in these individuals’ angst, and longing, and devilish joe de vivre. Alternating between her own vivid English translations, and flawless French throughout each of the night’s numbers, she was joined by pianist Ian Herman, who switched seamlessly between wry barrelhouse theatrics, wistful blues, neoromantic lustre and the occasional blazing coda.

The audience was most transfixed by the darkest material. With its harrowing portrait of over-the-edge despair, tricky thematic shifts and vocal leaps and bounds, the night’s most challenging number was Stone, a roof-raiser from the obscure French musical Starmania. The night’s high point was not a whimsical love song but a harrowing triptych of Jacques Brel antiwar ballads. Taking inspiration from Marshall’s father-in-law, a World War II vet, the duo segued from the elegaic Les Grognards to the macabre tritones of La Colombe and finally the Vietnam-era Sons Of (Fils De), which reminds how the kids we send off to war have the same dreams, and nightmares, as those we don’t. Marshall was moved to the point of tears by that number, as well as when she recalled a moment busking on the banks of the Seine, where a homeless guy put money in her beret. Artifice is not a part of what she does, at least here.

Her between-song banter was priceless. She’d set up a whimsicallly minimalist building-block Paris atop the piano, using it as a springboard for wry recollections of her experiences as an American there. A vocal coach who couldn’t bear Marshall showing up in shorts with her skateboard; a Centre Pompidou exhibit exploring the meaning of nothingness (it happened; Marshall went); and the ne plus ultra vanity of people like the woman in Boris Vian’s playfully lyrical, satirical J’suis Snob.

As someone who’s lived in both Paris and New York, Marshall absolutely nailed the connection between the two cities. Much as we may love our respective stomping grounds, we’re equally cynical about them. Which is where her insight and unselfconscious depth really took centerstage, particularly on the more lighthearted numbers. She left out the third verse of Yves Montand’s Les Grand Boulevards because that was where the guy in the song whisks a girl into an alleyway: Marshall considered this “Trump-worthy,” and the audience roared. And she brought out the underlying unease in Piaf’s Marie la Francaise, a broodingly wistful take of Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème and a new translation of Autumn Leaves, reminding that its original title is Les Feuilles Mortes.

Fun fact: Marshall casually related that she used to bike up to the top of Montmartre. For anyone who’s ever walked that hill, especially after a few drinks, just thinking about that makes you want to jump over the fence and collapse in that meadow at the top. N’est-ce pas?

La Femme Bring Le Noir to Williamsburg on the 19th

There’s no French equivalent to Halloween, but French band La Femme play as if they grew up with the American holiday. The core of the group comprises frontman/keyboardist Marlon Magnée, chanteuse/keyboardist Clémence Quélenneche, guitarist Sacha Got and bassist Sam Lefevre. Their June Summerstage show was tantalizingly eclectic, neither as dark nor as trippy as their previous studio output. While their latest album Mystere – streaming at Spotify  – is arguably their most diverse to date, there’s enough menace on it to entice you in and then keep you there with all its catchy hooks, both light and dark. The songs’ French lyrics range from surreal humor, to broodingly cinematic narratives, to punk hostility. La Femme are back in New York this Oct 19 at 7 PM at Warsaw in Williamsburg. Cover is $18.

The opening track, Sphynx, lives up to its inscrutable title – at heart, it’s a ba-bump noir cabaret number, but lit up with a swirly, circling synth hook and a big, ominously blustery string synth arrangement. La Vide Est Ton Nouveau Prenom (Empty Is Your New Name) follows a moody psych-folk sway, sparse acoustic guitar blending with mournful keys. Ou Va le Monde (Where’s the World Going?) sets Magnée’s apprehensive rap over the brooding surf rock that’s been the group’s signature sound, more or less, since the beginning. with a weird, achingly warped keyboard solo out.

The band takes an unexpectedly sunny detour with Septembre. notwithstanding the clever outro where they reintroduce a Jesus & Mary Chain theme to its Velvets roots. Tatiana sounds like the Black Angels on whippits (with a little Plastic Bertrand thrown in), while both SSD and Elle Ne T’Aime Pas (She Doesn’t Like You) come across as a Gallic take on Pulp during the British band’s snide pseudo-disco days.

Exorciseur (a pun on “exorcist”) nicks the changes from the national anthem of grunge and makes swaying psychedelia out of it. Mycose is a sardonically lyrical mashup of surf music, motorik disco and Planet Clare new wave. Tueur Des Fleurs (Flower Killer), with its low, looming string synth and Lychian tremolo guitar, is the album’s darkest and arguably best track. The dubby, ethereal, late Beatlesque Al Warda is ominously enticing; and the loping, surfy Psyzook, with Quélenneche’s stratospheric, airy vocals, is arguably even more mysterious.

Le Chemin (The Road) could be a dangerous early Dream Syndicate track if that group had been more keyboard-oriented. The album winds up with Vagues (Clouds), the epic that Julee Cruise never tackled. About 40% of this makes a first-class Halloween playlist; the rest you can sprinkle around your party mixes.

Les Nubians Charm the Kids and Their Parents Too at the French Alliance

What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.

French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.

Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.

Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.

Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.

The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.

A Hot Saturday Night Date with Les Chauds Lapins

Saturday night at Barbes the room was packed. Once Les Chauds Lapins began their set, it was literally impossible to get inside to see them playing their pillowy, bittersweet original arrangements of jazzy French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. Like Les Sans Culottes, Les Chauds Lapins (literally, “The Hot Rabbits,” 30s French slang for “hot to trot”) occupy a significant slice of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Over the years, hotshot guitarist/singer Meg Reichardt’s French accent has gotten pretty good. Co-leader Kurt Hoffmann distinguishes himself with his meticulously witty new arrangements as well as his agile clarinet playing. But in this band, both musicians play banjo ukes on most of the songs, this time backed by a swoony string section with bass, cello and viola. So these new versions are considerably different from the original piano-and-orchestra or musette-style recordings.

Les Chauds Lapins further distinguish themselves by performing a lot of relatively obscure material, not just the best-known hits by Piaf, Charles Trenet and so forth. The chirpy sound of the two ukes enhances the songs’ droll, deadpan wit: both Hoffman and Reichardt have a thing for bouncy romantic ballads about affairs that start out looking just grand but by the second verse or so have gone straight to hell. And Hoffman had the strings punching and diving and dancing with a verve to match the songs’ lyrics.

They opened with Vous Avez L’Eclat de la Rose (a free download), about a girl who smells like jasmine but may not be so sweet after all. A little later on they did one of their big crowd-pleasers, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son): he’s in love with a circus freak, but if that doesn’t work out he’s always got a gig waiting for him playing accordion at a relative’s country whorehouse. Reichardt sang another surreal number from the point of view of a girl who gets trashed beyond belief early in the evening, hooks up in the bushes with some random guy and then starts to lose her buzz, realizing that she might have made a mistake. But, what the hell: “Let’s dance,” she tells him as she straightens her dress. Hoffman’s bubbly, precise clarinet added a cheery dixieland flavor; Reichardt, who’s a mean blues player, showed off her increasingly impressive jazz chops on one of the songs midway through the set. A lot of the material this time out was relatively new, at least for them, one of the most interesting numbers being a vocal version of Django Reinhardt’s Swing 33.

And most everybody listened through all the puns, and the innuendo, and the double entendres. OK, there was one gentrifier boy, or maybe not a boy, whatev, in the back of the room, hell-bent on impressing everyone within earshot with how blithe and fey he was, and he WOULDN’T SHUT UP. But nobody paid him any mind. People like that don’t usually go to Barbes anyway. Les Chauds Lapins will be there again on Valentine’s Day at 8.

A Lushly Gorgeous Global Party Album and a Subculture Show from Banda Magda

Banda Magda‘s previous album Amour, T’es La put a shimmery equatorial spin on bouncy vintage French ye-ye pop. Their new album, Yerakina (streaming at Bandcamp) is a lot more diverse, considerably darker, and has a much more global reach – and it’s pretty amazing. This time out, frontwoman/accordionist Magda Giannikou – who also plays the ancient Greek lanterna, a hauntingly rippling instrument – explores styles from the Mediterranean to the Amazon and many points in between. She sings in a warm, searching high soprano, much in the same vein as another A-list global songwriter, Natacha Atlas, and has a band to match the songs’ ambitious scope. They’re playing the album release show at 10 PM on Oct 4 at Subculture; advance tix are $18 and highly recommended. Much as Banda Magda’s albums are inventively arranged and lushly orchestrated, the band really kicks out the jams onstage.

The album opens with Sabia, a bubbly, shuffling, accordion-fueled mashup of salsa, Belgian musette, Mediterranean sun-song and a wry hint of cumbia. El Pescador, a hit for Colombia’s Totó La Momposina, gets done as a lush, elegant flamenco-jazz number, Giannikou’s balmy, pillowy vocals floating over stately piano and strings. Trata, a gorgeously swaying Middle Eastern-tinged Greek party tune with rippling hammered dulcimer, cheery brass and animated guy/girl vocals, takes on additional bulk and heft as the arrangement grows.

They contrast that with Luis Gonzaga’s Doralice, reinvented as a dancing miniature for Petros Klampanis’ bass, Giannikou’s vocals and a hint of tropical organ. The album’s title track is a swoony yet kinetic, lavishly orchestrated Greek ballad. The plaintively swinging lament Petite Fleur sounds like Chicha Libre in low-key, brooding mode, a psychedelic cumbia done as French chamber pop, while Karotseris blends Henry Mancini Vegas noir with creepy hi-de-ho swing and late 60s French psych-pop.

The album’s longest track, Cucurucu Paloma is also its quietest and most hypnotic, a hazy blend of rustic Brazilian rainforest folk and lingering psychedelia. With Giannikou’s rapidfire, precise Portuguese vocals, the final cut, Vinicius de Moraes’ Senza Paura keeps the equatorial flavor simmering as it picks up the pace. Whatever continents Banda Magda touch down on here, they find themselves at home; this is one of 2014’s best and most disarmingly charming albums.

Pierre de Gaillande Translates and Reimagines a New Collection of Hilarious Georges Brassens Songs

Pierre de Gaillande‘s first collection of English translations of songs by legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens was one of 2010’s most deliciously fun, lyrical albums. The Brooklyn art-rocker who currently leads the Snow has returned with Bad Reputation, Volume 2, a new mix of Brassens songs. In a thirty-year career that began in the late 40s, Brassens was both a celebrity and a big pain in the ass of the French authorities: getting banned from the radio only made him more wildly popular. De Gaillande has said that Brassens was more punk than most punk rockers, and he’s right: Brassens had more than one bête noire, including fascists, religious nuts and hypocrites from all walks of life. His songs are riddled with puns, double and triple entendres. That his lyrics have held up as well as they have over the decades, considering how slangy they are, not to mention Brassens’ constant references to history, mythology and Catholicism, attests to the power of his caustic wit. But despite all that, Brassens never reached an audience far beyond his native land, partly because he sang exclusively in French (in an era when French singers often courted an Anglophone audience), partly because his songs had such bare-bones production: he was lo-fi decades before lo-fi was cool.

With de Gaillande at the helm of this project, Brassens’ songs get the benefit of a much better singer and also a more accomplished multi-instrumentalist (Brassens never cared to do more than comp basic chords on guitar or piano), as well as elegant Romany jazz and chamber pop-tinged arrangements. As with the first album, the band includes de Gaillande’s Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass along with numerous cameo appearances, among them bass clarinetis Ken Thomson, chanteuse Keren Ann and Brassens’ final lead guitarist, Joel Favreau. As he did on the first Bad Reputation album, de Gaillande has also matched the rhyme scheme of Brassens’ lyrics throughout virtually all of the songs here, no small achievement.

While it has its excoriating moments, this collection is somewhat more lighthearted than the first Bad Reputation mix. As before, the songs are taken from throughout Brassens’ career. The first, Dear Old Leon (Le vieux Leon), is fueled by humor that’s subtly vicious rather than in-your-face like Brassens usually was: it’ll resonate mightily with people who don’t like accordions. Like many of Brassens’ songs, it’s something of a faux eulogy: too bad we didn’t stick around that night when old Leon crashed the party with his squeezebox, the narrator muses. In a cruel stroke of irony, this album is the final recording by Jean-Jacques Franchin, Brassens’ longtime keyboardist, who plays accordion on this and several other songs with a lithe, animated touch.

Interestingly, de Gaillande translates La complainte des filles de joie as Lament of the Ladies of Leisure, adding yet another level of possible sarcasm to Brassens’ only half-sarcastic defense of hardworking, underappreciated hookers. There are a couple of kiss-off songs here: Give Them All a Kiss (Embrasse-les tous) is a vengeful waltz directed at a girl with an “artichoke heart, anyone can have a leaf,” who goes for “Tall ones and short, even Lilliputians fully grown, give them all a kiss, god will recognize his own.” And With All Due Respect (Sauf le respect que je vous dois) finds Brassens the pacifist threatening to punch out anyone who brings up the subject of love.

The War of 14-18 (La guerre de 14-18) reaffirms that antiwar stance, a sarcastic defense of the First World War as being the greatest of them all since it was the most gruesome.  The decision to follow In the Clear Water of the Fountain (Dans l’eau de la claire fontaine), a coy nude-girl scenario, with The Wind (Le vent), a sendup of bourgeois conformity, is absolutely brilliant, both thematically and lyrically. Wine (Le vin) is one of the alltime great drinking songs, and de Gaillande delivers it lustily as the band builds to a klezmer-tinged romp. As Brassens tells it, his parents found him under a vine, “not the cabbage patch like all of those average Joes…if cows made red wine, I’d milk them before breakfast.” Likewise, The Old Man (L’ancêtre) tells the sad tale of a dedicated crew hell-bent on giving their dying friend a kickass sendoff, with music, and wine, and prostitutes…but the killjoy nun at the door won’t have any of it.

The Storm (L’orage) is classic Brassens, working every irony and Freudian symbol in the story of a guy trying to seduce the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman. The album ends with The Codicil (Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sete), which is the longest song Brassens ever wrote, a detailed list of burial instructions. Brassens explains that he wants his final resting place to be at the beach where he can watch hot girls from the great beyond –  and if any of them want to use his tomb for sunbathing or changing their clothes, so much the better. English-speaking Brassens fans will have a great time debating the nuances of de Gaillande’s artful and clever translations; for those who don’t speak French, this album and its predecessor are a long overdue introduction. De Gaillande plays the album release show for this one on Oct 27 at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.

Patricia Kaas Reinvents Edith Piaf

Last year, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Edith Piaf’s death, French singer Patricia Kaas teamed up with film composer Abel Korzeniowski to create a multimedia spectacle, Kaas Chante Piaf, a program she debuted in New York last night at the Town Hall. Roughly twenty years since Kaas’ first appearance on that stage, she’s added nuance to the breathy, noir-tinged cabaret gravitas that’s been her signature over a career that spans the worlds of blues, jazz and artsy French pop. When Kaas first hit in the late 80s as a twenty-year-old with the voice of a woman twice her age, word on the street was that she was the closest thing to Piaf since Piaf herself. While the Little Sparrow was and remains Kaas’ most obvious influence (with plenty of Marlene Dietrich in there too), her voice is different: a gale-force contralto that she’s reined in a little over the years with dynamic results. Among New York singers, the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho is a good comparison.

Even if you’re a superstar in your home country, as Kaas is, the challenge of singing Piaf is a potential minefield. As the show opened, things did not look good, Kaas singing to a lavishly orchestrated backing track, video screen behind her. But her musicians – Johnny Dyke on piano, Nicolas Stevens on violin and Frederic Helbert on guitar, accordion and the mixing board –  played tersely and meticulously kept up with the big symphonic swells emanating from the mixing desk, even if that occasionally subsumed what was being played live. And the result turned out to be a brave and individualistic series of reinventions of predominantly iconic songs. How did the lithely muscular, graceful Kaas decide to reimagine La vie en rose? She turned it into a dance piece, as the screen projected a series of geometric images that were not pink but purple. This show has several visual components, including a handful of brief dance sequences, and here she let her shirtless, stoic partner Ezio Schiavulli spin her upside down after she’d gone down into a tendon-busting crabwalk pose. And the sold-out, mostly French, mainly fortysomething crowd responded explosively.

There was no shortage of drama throughout the rest of the show, from the anguished to the comedic. An attempt to get a guys-versus-girls singalong going fell flat on its face (as it had the first time Kaas played here), so she seized the opportunity to ham it up. She opened with an imploring, rather harrowing take of Mon dieu, dating from 1960 when all the drugs were really starting to take their toll on Piaf, and closed with a cannonball version of Non, je ne regrette rien which was successful in generating a rousingly spontaneous singalong from pretty much everybody while obvious drug imagery played up on the screen. Along with the dancing, several costume changes and some thoughtful commentary from Kaas (whose English has gotten pretty good over the years), there were a couple of minutes’ worth of droll, bittersweet home video footage of Piaf herself.

Kaas took the angst of being haunted by a lingering melody to its logical, towering conclusion with Padam, padam, went into the darker corners of her voice for the world-weary heartbreak of Milord, got rather coy with C’est un gars, creepily theatrical with the noirish cabaret number Mon vieux Lucien, and raised the bustling La foule and the rather epic Hymne a l’amour to full-throttle crescendos. She also did an extremely welcome version of one of her own songs, D’Allemagne, reinvented as a slowly building, grittily intense, nocturnal piano-and-voice overture, a far cry from the moody bluster of the stadium-rock version on her massive double live album from back in the 90s. This was the final stop on Kaas’ US tour this year; she plays a stand at the Olympia in Paris on Sept 26-27 and is back there on Oct 10, with a lot of European and Russian touring around those dates. The full schedule is here

Charming French Tropicalia from Banda Magda

Truth in advertising: the cd cover for Banda Magda’s new album Amour, T’es La? is pink and festooned with palm leaves and tropical fruit. Although what this group plays is not dark – it’s bouncy, upbeat, irrepressibly fun music – it is quintessentially New York and cosmopolitan to the extreme. Frontwoman/accordionist Magda Gianikou writes and sings in French, although her ancestry is Greek. Her core band includes vibraphonist Mika Mimura, guitarist Nacho Hernandez, bassist Petros Klampanis and percussionist Marcelo Woloski. The rest of the players on the album – among them drummer Jordan Perlson, cellist Jody Redhage and violist Ljova Zhurbin – represent this city’s A-list jazz and classical music scenes. Gianikou’s quirky, clever arrangements also include parts for brass, shamisen, hammered dulcimer and concert harp. It’s a party in a box.

The title track – meaning “You There, Love?”  – sets the tone, Gianikou’s chirpy vocals (and solidily good French accent) soaring over bouncy bossa pop. The second track, Asteroide is a sassy, tiptoeing swing tune, Gianikou cajoling a guy to come populate her empty planet. Caramel works a latin disco groove, but in an organic way with lush strings and breathy, come-hither vocals (and a chorus that at first listen sounds like “cassoulet”).

The band brings in echoey Rhodes piano with the lush strings on Ce Soir (Tonight), followed by the jaunty boudoir pop anthem Couches-Toi (Lie Down), building to an unexpectedly lavish waltz midway through. Juin (June) sets a slightly delirious, slightly Indian-tinged seaside resort tableau, while Fond de la Mer (Bottom of the Sea) evokes Jenifer Jackson at her balmiest and most psychedelic.

La Japonaise is an Asian-tinged, drolly festive tale about Mimura’s adventures playing a Montreal jazz bar, dodging seductive men and losing her mallets in the street. Mouche (The Fly) is funkier – she gets in your hair, she may end up in your drink and she wants your body. The catchiest song here is Oublies-La (Forget Her), with its barrage of la-la’s, salsa piano and soaring flute. The album winds up with the dreamy but bouncy Petite Maline (which translates roughly as Little Devil or Little Troublemaker), Gianikou insisting she’s not a bad girl even though she ripped a hole in the roof so she could look up into the sky and see all the bright colors. Gianikou plays the Lincoln Center plaza for free at 7 PM on July 26; later on that night on the stage out back in Damrosch Park, she’ll sing alongside headliners the Kronos Quartet. Banda Magda are at Prospect Park bandshell at 7:30 PM on August 3, opening for salsa jazz legend Eddie Palmieri.