New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: musique francaise

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.