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.