Isn’t it ironic to the extreme that one of the few New York groups to articulately stand up to the menace of gentrification and trickle-up economics would sing their lyrics in French? In a global context, maybe there’s some twisted logic to that. After all, when faced with austérité or corruption, the French actually do something about it. Usually that means they go on strike. Maybe we should too: after all, at this moment in history, on est tous Charlie.
Les Sans Culottes are a New York institution, stars of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Except that Les Sans Culottes’ music is original: they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of French rock. Their specialty, throughout a career that spans almost twenty years, is their own twisted take on the ye-ye pop that sprang up in France in the mid 60s, a coy hybrid of American garage rock and psychedelia and bouncy French variétés pop. More recently, their music has become somewhat less satirical, while their impressively fluent French lyrics have become more so, with a corrosively funny, politically spot-on sensibility. Their latest, arguably best and most savagely amusing album, the menacingly titled Les Dieux Ont Soif (The Gods Are Thirsty, a phrase that dates from the terror after the French Revolution) is streaming at soundcloud. They’re playing Muchmore’s at midnight this Friday, Jan 16.
The band members’s noms de plume (noms de guitarre?) give you a good idea of where they’re coming from. There’s frontman Clermont Ferrand (whose alter ego fronts another NYC institution, the Jug Addicts); girl singers Kit Kat Le Noir and Courtney Louvre; drummer Jacques Strappe; bassist M. Pomme Frite; keyboardist Benoit Bals, and hotshot guitarist Geddy Liaison. As you would expect from a band that’s been going as long as they have, there’s been some turnover across the years, this being by far the hardest-rocking version of the group. Throughout their career, their songs have parodied and pilloried everything French, from cuisine, to literary snobbery, to politics: in this age of austérité, it only makes sense that the new album would have more of a snarlingly political focus.
With its slinky Pink Panther groove, the title track perfectly capsulizes the band’s appeal: Clermont Ferrand and the girls poking fun at French vinophilia, but with a subtle undercurrent that casts the gods as a bunch of power-mad drunks. Allez Les Humains (Up with People) blends touches of gospel, Rolling Stones and Zapp and Roger into the mix, a gentle poke at the tech-obsessed. They revisit that theme with The Galactic Man, via Benoit Bals’ silly, quavery space-pop keys.
As usual with this band, the hardest-hitting tracks are the best. L’affaire Dominique Strauss-Kahn gets a withering look, speaking truth to power against a mighty, anthemic backdrop. DSK’s dismissive “Je suis un client de Sofitel” is priceless, and perfectly capsulizes what that was all about. Likewise, Gendarme Gendarme roars into Dead Kennedys territory, a blackly amusing view of police state terror in post-9/11 NYC. The bouncy groove of La Nouvelle Norme Amorale disguises its exasperated view of trickle-up economics and contains what might be the album’s best couple of lines:
Les troupes de choc pour notre chômage
Ils sentent mauvais comme des grands fromages
Rough translation: “Shock troops against the unemployed/Smells as bad as the big cheese.” And the most resonant and maybe funniest of all the songs here, at least from a hometown perspective, is Très Brooklyn, a broodingly anthemic, keyboard-driven sendup of gentrifier #patheticness, right down to the trendy neighborhood name-dropping.
On the more lighthearted side, there’s the pretty self-explanatory Faux Pas, with its roller-rink organ. Kit Kat Le Noir sings Pierre, Don’t Let the Cat Out, which might be a satire of yuppie overconsumption, or it might just be a catchy, organ-and-guitar-fueled ye-ye pop tune. She also takes over vocals on the gently tropical-flavored La Fille Chichiteuse, a poke at a snobby girl.
The wickedly catchy, pouncingly pulsing Metro Boulot Dodo draws a sardonic picture of party animals caught on the dayjob treadmill. And the band revisits that in the lone sort-of-English-language track here, the hilariously funky What People Do for Money, which sounds suspiciously like the kind of conversation you might overhear between BCGB Parisian transplants recently relocated to Bedford Avenue.
Dans la Nuit is a cruelly accurate spoof of faux-jazzy 80s/90s French pop. The surreal cowboy tale Oh Minot has a wryly punchy, vaguely Spanish flavor: it sounds a lot like the group’s similarly satirical Dutch predecessors Gruppo Sportivo. And you don’t need to speak French to enjoy the music: in their own way, the English translations at the band’s lyric page are just as funny as the original French versions.