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An Iconic, Fearlessly Populist Brooklyn Band Releases Their Most Ambitious Album in Bushwick Saturday Night

If there’s any New York band who’ve earned a song about themselves, it’s Les Sans Culottes. It’s on their latest album, She is Tossed By the Waves But Does Not Sink, streaming at Bandcamp. That’s the Paris city motto, and there’s no small irony in that the same could be said for the band. Since the 90s, they’ve slowly expanded from their origins as the Spinal Tap of late 60s French ye-ye psychedelic pop, to become as eclectic as the New York borough they represent used to be before the blitzkrieg of out-of-state white yuppies and “luxury” condos. No other New York band have spoken out as witheringly or accurately against the blight of gentrification as this shapeshifting crew – in spot-on, slangy French, no less. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, June 2 at 10 PM at El Cortez in Bushwick. The show isn’t listed on the venue calendar, but if they charged $20 for Amy Rigby, this should be about half that or less.

Along the way, the group have weathered several lineup changes and even a lawsuit by a spinoff of the band. That the Sans Culottes brand would be worth taking to court speaks for itself. This latest edition, fronted by founder Clermont Ferrand, is the most stylistically eclectic ever. While there are a few songs that bring to mind late 60s Serge Gainsbourg or Françoise Hardy, the satire is subtler than ever. Their signature mockery of French would-be rockers stumbling through all sorts of American idioms is still there, but the songs span from lush new wave to Stonesy rock to faux funk, stadium anthems and the noir.

The opening track’s title, Eiffel Tour is a Franglais pun – in French, it’s Le Tour Eiffel. It’s as much a musical as lyrical spoof, a shuffling early 70s style French faux funk tune driven by keyboardist Benoit Bals’ trebly Farbisa over Jacques Strappe’s drums and M. Pomme Frite’s bass. It’s the band’s An American in Paris:

Je prends mon élan
Et parle en verlan
Nous sommes en terrasse

[This is tough to translate, and indicative of how clever this band’s lyrics are. The first couple of lines roughly equate to “I get up the nerve and talk in verlan,” a French counterpart to pig Latin from the late 80s Paris banlieu Arab ghetto. “Nous sommes en terrasse,” meaning literally “We’re on the terrace,” was a meme referring to how resolute the French remained in the wake of the 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office. In that context, it’s “We’re just chilling.”]

There’s more Bals on this album than any of the band’s previous releases. Case in point: the warbly Wurlitzer electric piano and swirly organ on the more authentically funky second number, which is also more musically than lyrically satirical.

Chuchotements Chinois (Chinese Whispers – a reference to the French obsession with the Cure, maybe?) sets Geddy Liaison’s Rolling Stones guitar and lush vocals from the band’s two women singers, Kit Kat Le Noir and Brigitte Bordeaux, over a coy new wave strut with a sly resemblance to a popular 80s hit by French band Indochine. The phony bossa De Rien is a cluelessly chipper breakup number complete with breathy boudoir vocals and loungey piano.

The glossy, synthy 80s-style Chibeca v. Chewbacca shoots a spitball at sleazy developers trying to rename New York neighborhoods: rebranding gritty, constantly shrinking Chinatown as part of shi-shi Tribeca isn’t quite as moronic as calling the South Bronx the Piano District, but it’s close.

The jaunty doo-wop rock of L’Histoire des Sans Culottes chronicles the band’s triumphs and tribulations:

NOUS AVONS EU DES IMITATEURS,
BANDES D’HOMMAGES, MAUVAIS DOPPELGÄNGERS
En manque évident de savoir faire
Ersatz inferieurs sorry ass loseurs

[We’ve had imitators
Tribute bands, bad doppelgangers
Who obviously couldn’t get things done…]

You don’t really need a translation for that last line, right?

Je Ne Sais Quoi pokes playful fun at French pronouns over a slightly less retro backdrop. Along with their Cure obsession, the French also have a rabid Stooges cult, which the band salute in Detroit Rock Cite – which actually sounds more like AC/DC with keys. Mismatched styles are also the joke in A La Mode, an ersatz Stones-flavored shout out to Prince. The band follow that with La Ballade de Johnny X, poking wistful fun at the femme fatale tradition as personified by noir acts like Juniore

The catchy, riff-rocking Je M’en Fous (I Don’t Give a Fuck) opens with the line “Tawdry Adieu ou Audrey Tautou” and stays just as amusing from there, with a snide reference to French misadventures in imperialism. In the Hall of the Ye Ye King (Agathe Bauer) is a mock-rock salute to the power of unlikely one-hit wonder Euro-pop. The album winds up on a surprisingly somber note with the lavish art-rock epic Aller Sans Retour (One Way Ticket). Your appreciation of this album will increase immeasurably if you speak French – check the band’s priceless lyrics page– but it’s not necessary. Look for this on the best albums of 2018 list at the end of the year if Trump doesn’t blow us all up by then. 

Another Edgy, Hilarious, Spot-On Album and a Muchmore’s Gig by Les Sans Culottes

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.