The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter

03

MeeKAlthough he takes his nom de rock from Joe Meek, it's fair to say that Stéphane-Franck Pascal's favourite '60s British pop stars are The Beatles.

After all, his second album, 'Sleeping With Big Ben', consisted entirely of Fab Four covers. (The record was released in 2003 in Japan only.) You think you're a dedicated Beatles fan for having read the official biography of Sir Paul by Barry Miles, 'Many Years From Now'? Pascal translated it into French. 

Unsurprisingly, his own songs are steeped in Lennon and McCartneyism, which is never a bad thing for songs. Sortie De Secours' (which translates as 'emergency exit') is the fourth album by MeeK (right), who insists on that upper case 'K' at the end of his name. The album slipped out at the end of 2008 but only came to our attention this week.

MeeK's brand of acoustic pop may be a bit too sugary for some tastes. But then again, there are people who don't like chocolate. And we'll never deter French pop stars from writing melodies and hooks and choruses, stuff many musicians here wouldn't dream of doing lest it taint their art.

Check out MeeK's MySpace page and listen to a selection of songs off 'Sortie De Secours'. First single 'Six Feet Under', inspired by the cult U.S. series of the same name, is currently getting plenty of airplay on Paris radio. Here's the video, a retro and romantic tour around Paris:


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26
THWACK! That’s the sound of gauntlet being thrown, as the first great French album of 2009 gets in the ring and starts picking fights.
 
Sweat Symphony by FlairsFlairs is the nom de rock of Lionel Flairs, itself a name which is just too good to not be a pseudonym. Mr Flairs divides his time between London and Paris, making rather deadly electro-pop in both cities. Some Flairs tracks have been doing the web-rounds since last year, and now he’s gathered ten of them into an album that already has us planning for our end-of-year Best French Music list.
 
It’s called ‘Sweat Symphony’ and the cover (right) features Lionel and his unflattering armpits. This is clearly a deliberate strategy to keep all the unpleasantness on the outside of the record, thus maximising the fabness inside. Funky, catchy, dancefloor-friendly electro-pop that’ll have you grinning and grinding and – yes – perspiring, ‘Sweat Symphony’ is joyous stuff.
 
Our favourite track? Well, for its statement of intent as much as its poptasticness, it’d have to be ‘Better Than Prince’. Better than Prince 1989-2009? Well that’s easy, seeing as the man hasn’t released a decent single in over twenty years. Better than Prince 1982-1987? Now that’s a big claim, but much of ‘Sweat Symphony’ stands up respectably to the purple genius’s golden age.
 
You can judge for yourself. Listen to tracks from ‘Sweat Symphony’ on Flairs’ MySpace page, and watch the video for ‘Better Than Prince’. (It was made by Jonas and François, responsible for the clever T-shirt video for ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ by Justice.) But quit picking on small fellas, Mr Flairs:
 

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24

We had been worried. Last autumn Phoenix (below right) posted 'Twenty One One Zero', a track from the sessions for their new album, 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix', the follow-up to 2006's brilliant 'It's Never Been Like That'.

PhoenixThe trouble was that we found it disappointing: a three-minute intro of tired electronic loops all building to enormodome-friendly rawk dynamics. It sounded like a photocopy of the opening minute of 'Where The Streets Have No Name', and if we wanted rewrites of old U2 songs we could just go and listen to new U2 songs.

But now Phoenix have just aired the first single of that upcoming album and it's smashing stuff. Yes!

Keeping with the vague number/year theme of that earlier track, the new song is called '1901'. Out go the Eno/Edge-isms: '1901' picks up the alt-pop of 'It's Never Been Like That' and runs with it into electronic beats. All the while, Phoenix keep their unique blend of post-punk attitude and indie romanticism - singer Thomas Mars sounds as lovelorn as ever. 

The track has the familiar Phoenix structure of long, looping verses building to a long, looping chorus. As always with this band's material, there's no catchy hook that would get it on mainstream radio; world domination will have to wait once more. But that's a minor gripe: '1901' is fresh and exciting stuff.

'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart' will be released on 25 May. Before that, you can download '1901' for free from Phoenix's website or simply have a listen to it on Phoenix's MySpace page. Or, to make it even easier for you, have a listen to it on this home-made video:


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23

There’s a swell of interest building in Paris music circles about a young piano-playing singer-songer who’s breathing new life into a classic French genre.

Maud LubeckMaud Lübeck (right) is the lady in question. A prolific musician and film-maker, she has already recorded two albums under the pseudonym Emma Udé (the French pronunciation of the letters M-A-U-D) and made several short films. Now she’s gaining rave reviews for songs that she has posted on the internet under her own name.

Lübeck plays melancholic piano songs that almost burst with quiet intensity and simmering emotion. Our French and Francophile readers will immediately think of Barbara, the ‘60s icon of dramatic French cabaret pop. She also has a lot in common with the darker parts of Emily Loizeau’s wonderful 2006 album ‘À L’Autre Bout Du Monde’. Like both those ladies, Lübeck has a keen ear for a good tune and is careful not to let her songs get smothered by cheap sentiment – every note and feeling rings true. She’s Maud, not maudlin.

She was caught on radar near the end of last year when she duetted with Vincent Delerm, star of the chanson française scene, on a track called ‘Je T’Aimais Trop’ (“I love you too much”). Your blogger is normally allergic to the bland, tuneless Delerm, but his duet with Lübeck is really very good and if it brings attention to her then so much the better.

Since the start of this year, French music blogs have been buzzing with excitement about Lübeck, and influential magazine Les Inrockuptibles has raved about her. Such is her low profile that no one seems sure if she’s going to release an album; we know that she’s not signed to a record label. 

And just to add to the frenzy around her, Lübeck's upcoming shows in Paris and Lyon are part of a children's charity - and the concerts are for kids only. Already, French music fans are scrambling to find a young niece or nephew who'll gain them admittance to the hottest shows in the country right now.

You can hear those marvellous tunes on Maud Lübeck’s MySpace page. Our favourite is ‘Le Parapluie’ (“the umbrella”), but every track we’ve heard from her has been memorable. Here’s a video she made for one of her older songs, ‘Egg Oeil’:

 


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18

Do you remember our recent trip to the edge of the world (i.e. a remote Paris satellite town) to see cult French electro-chappie Bertrand Burgalat in concert? And how we mentioned his special guest that night, April March? And how we’d write about her in more detail, such is her all-round interestingness?

Well, your memory is better than ours. Your blogger had to be viciously prodded by an impatient reader about following up that one. So anyway:

April MarchYou might know April March (right) for a song called ‘Chick Habit’. This hipswinging number featured on the fine soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’, thus guaranteeing it cult status, and has since been used on a TV ad for the Renault Twingo (a quintessentially Parisian car). The song is March’s English-language adaptation of ‘Laisser Tomber Les Filles’, one of Serge Gainsbourg’s many hit compositions for France Gall.

But who is April March?

Well, we’re disappointed to say that April March is only her nom de pop; her real name is Elinore Blake. But she has a definite talent for names – before becoming April March, Blake was in bands called The Pussywillows (whose live line-up featured Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo) and The Shitbirds. Yes!

As a schoolgirl in California, Blake became obsessed with France and spent time here on a school exchange programme. Transforming herself into the pop butterfly that is April March, she has maintained this infatuation. ‘Chick Habit’ comes from a 1999 album called ‘Chrominance Decoder’ (here she loses her naming talent a little) that revisits Gainsbourg’s early-‘60s yéyé period of innuendo-laden twist-pop written for the naïve young Gall, who still admits that at the time she never realised what ‘Les Sucettes’ was about. An earlier March album, ‘Gainsbourgsion’ (okay, she’s clearly better with pseudonyms and band names than album titles) features both ‘Chick Habit’ and ‘Laisser Tomber Les Filles’, as well as other Serge artifacts from that era.

March is signed to Burgalat’s Tricatel label, which explains why she’s a guest in his concert. Thin and frail, she seems quite nervous and unsure as she walks on stage to join Burgalat and his band. But she acquits herself well. Her part of the show ends with a cracking performance of ‘Chick Habit’; the sparse crowd can go home happy.

(Trivia: Blake is a cartoonist and was once the principal animator on ‘Ren and Stimpy’, and she drew Madonna in the title sequence and video for ‘Who’s That Girl’. And let’s not forget that she was in a band called The Shitbirds.)

You can check out more retro French pop on April March’s MySpace page. There’s no official video for ‘Chick Habit’, so we’ll show you one of her other songs. A loving recreation of both ‘60s French pop and ‘60s French ‘scopitone’ pop videos, here’s April March with ‘Mignonette’:


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16

The early ‘80s are now seen as a golden period in English pop, but it doesn’t seem to have been a great time for French music. The Paris disco scene of the late-‘70s had faded away (to re-emerge in the 1990s as a profound influence on Daft Punk) while rock bands like Téléphone and Indochine were merely following whatever English bands had been doing years earlier.

In the background, though, The Clash’s 1981 Paris shows inspired kids like Manu Chao and Rachid Taha to dream up the sounds they’d produce in the late ‘80s and beyond. That series of concerts in the Theatre Mogador has become a creation myth for French rock music. Chao formed Mano Negra, perhaps the best French band ever. And backstage at the Mogador one night, the story goes, young Taha gave his demo tape to Joe Strummer. The following year The Clash released ‘Rock the Casbah’ – influenced directly by Taha, boast French music fans. This may well be true, as Mick Jones and Paul Simonon have often joined Taha on stage for his rousing Arabic version of the song.

Patrick CoutinSo, 1981 saw seeds sown in French music – but that harvest only comes many years later. From the music released at the time, as we said, there isn’t much that has endured. However, listening to the radio lately we discovered a rarity: a fine early-‘80s French single.

‘J’aime Regarder Les Filles’ (in English, “I like watching girls”) was a hit in 1981 for Patrick Coutin (right). Who? Well, he’s a French singer who hasn’t done anything else of note since then. But it doesn’t matter; one good song is one more than most acts can manage.

It’s an edgy, jittery sliver of punk-pop. The whole song hangs off a pulsing two-note bassline, with a sparse arrangement of guitar shards and very basic drumming. This sinewy sound sets up Coutin’s twitchy vocal delivery, which perfectly complements the lyrics about leering at girls. (Sample lyric: “I like watching girls walking on the beach/When they undress and pretend to be sensible/Their eyes asking ‘Who’s that guy?’”) The song teeters between strutting machismo and sinister perviness, and its catchiness has you humming along, making you complicit.

The song was recently covered by a French band called Astonvilla (one word), which conjures up a worrying mental image of Martin O’Neill at the beach with his binoculars out. Also, another mark of classic-pop-single status: it gets covered by contestants on TV talents shows.

There’s no video, which is probably just as well. So, while looking at a montage of the singer’s record sleeves, here’s ‘J’aime Regarder Les Filles’ by Patrick Coutin:

 


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12

The town, Chelles, is half an hour by train from Paris. The venue, Les Cuizines, is another half hour on foot from the station. And the bus service stopped at 9:30 in the evening. This is one of the reasons why the place was only about a third full for tonight's show.

The satellite towns round Paris have many such venues: cultural spaces or community centres hidden in hard-to-reach residential areas. Luckily there’s local government funding (and pricy beer) to offset the meagre door takings of some shows.

Bertrand BurgalatTonight's concert featured Bertrand Burgalat (right). While certainly not famous in France (the other reason for the low turnout), Burgalat's name is familiar to most French alt-pop fans. He played a show at classy Paris jazz venue New Morning the previous week, but the CLUAS Paris Correspondent couldn’t swing a pass. And so we’re in the middle of nowhere to see him. The bus, last of the evening, swung by industrial estates, shopping centres, motorways and other isolated landmarks that we tried to remember for the 30-minute walk back to the station and the last train back to Paris, departing 30 minutes after the show ends. This would want to be worth it.

Why go to all the trouble? Well, Burgalat has said that his current series of shows will be his last live appearances, so we wanted to see a genuine French cult pop star while we had the chance. Also, his guest on these shows is April March, another idiosyncratic pop figure that we thought worth seeing. (In fact, she merits a blog post of her own: we’ll tell you all about her very soon…)

Burgalat’s brand of retro-futuristic electro-pop, not to mention his nationality, invites comparison to that of Air, but it might be more accurate to compare him to his Finnish counterpart Jimi Tenor. As well as making dreamy electronic pop, they both have the carefully-crafted persona of a kitsch electro-nerd. Burgalat wears your granddad’s clothes and the NHS-style square glasses popularised by Jarvis Cocker. But tonight he is also sporting the same kind of five-day beard as his indie-kid backing band, thus giving away the fact of his hipness. (In the same way, Tenor's nerdy image is somewhat undermined by the fact that his ears are pierced.) That, and the news that he’s just agreed to design a collection of clothes for fashion house Azzaro.

Burgalat's back catalogue is pleasant, though undemanding and familiar-sounding to fans of retro-pop. His plain, unaffected singing style evokes both Kraftwerk and his compatriot Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab. And yes, if you like ‘Moon Safari’ you’ll like Burgalat too.

But while his albums haven't made him hip, Burgalat's in demand outside France as a remixer, arranger and collaborator. He's worked on records by Supergrass, Depeche Mode and Nick Cave, and his lovely 2007 duet with Robert Wyatt, 'This Summer Night', has become something of a cult favourite.

He has his own label, Tricatel, which features acts as diverse as one-hit-wonder DJ Mr Oizo, French comic actress Valérie Lemercier (his partner), our own The High Llamas - and Michel Houellebecq. In 2000 the controversial writer and film-maker released ‘Présence Humaine’, on which he sings his lyrics to music by Burgalat. It sounds quite… no, actually, we’ll let you find out for yourself.

Anyway, we enjoyed the show very much and just made it back in time for the last train home. We believe there's a Burgalat/March album coming out soon; in the meantime, check out Bertrand Burgalat's MySpace page to hear tracks from his previous albums.

Though it’s still wintry in Paris, here’s a Bertrand Burgalat song for the season to come; ‘Spring Isn’t Fair’:


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01

Around this time last year Declan de Barra played in Paris, as support to Nina Nastasia.

Twelve months later and the Waterford singer-songer (right) is back in the French capital – this time as the main act. What’s more, he’s appearing for three consecutive nights at a well-known venue in the heart of Paris’s music club district.
 
Starting tonight, Declan de Barra plays three nights at the Sunset. The venue is usually associated with jazz, as is the rue des Lombards area in which it’s located. Music-loving tourists usually head for this part of town and fill its clubs every night of the week, so de Barra is sure of a diverse and sizeable crowd.
 
He then moves on to Switzerland for a show in Delemont before popping back into France for a gig in Mulhouse. After that, it’s off around Sweden and the Netherlands for him.
 
All this activity isn’t just for the sake of getting out of the house. Declan de Barra will be plugging and merching his latest album, ‘A Fire To Scare The Sun’. If you’re into your alt-folk tunes and your acoustic singer-songer scene, there’s all that on on Declan de Barra’s MySpace page.
 
No stranger to Paris, Declan de Barra was also here last December. The evidence? He was caught on camera. Here he is in session, accompanied by Maeva le Berre, performing ‘Leaves In The Sun’:
 

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28

We had mentioned recently how Ireland’s reputation in France is quite low at the moment. Well, if it’s any consolation to you all in Eire, today sees the return of a classic French negative image: the strike.

Public servants, teachers, transport workers and state broadcasters have been called out by their unions. Many private sector workers from large factories like Renault are expected to join them, and most daily papers are off the news-stands. Cities and towns across France will witness massive protest marches and public meetings on the streets. At present it’s just a one-day strike, but it could be repeated in the coming weeks. President Sarkozy’s tactless boast last year that “nowadays when there’s a strike, no one notices” may come back to haunt him.

The rationale for the strike is a general air of dissatisfaction rather than any specific government action. Public service employees fear cutbacks; some primary school teachers are already taking home less pay for more responsibilities. Then there is the constant French worry about “le pouvoir d’achat” – purchasing power. While the economic crisis has hit France less hard than Ireland (no crazy mortgages here), the cost of living is rising. A baguette, that symbolic and reliable barometer of French prices, has become shorter, thinner and dearer.

The most visible signs of the strike are school closures and transport problems. Here in Paris, buses are running almost normally but on average only 1 in 3 trains and metros are operating. This presents less of a problem in the morning, when commuters are spread between 6  and 10 a.m., but the evening rush home tends to be a concentrated heave of panic. Your blogger had no problems getting an early train this morning, and an hour-long stroll home through Paris is no hardship.

(Today’s strike in France and last week’s disturbances in Iceland make us wonder why Irish people haven’t yet hit the streets en masse. Yes, we’re generally apathetic, but surely even the apolitical Irish have a boiling point?)

We’re reluctant to suggest that anyone profits from today’s transport disruptions, but for some there’s certainly a strike dividend. Cafés near our workplace were full with early risers who skipped breakfast at home in order to catch a crack-of-dawn train.

Then, of course, there are the taxi-drivers, who’ll be in greater demand this evening. Scorned in Paris like in every city, doesn’t anyone have love to give to them? Why, yes!  

To prove it, here’s one of the most famous French pop singles ever: ‘Joe Le Taxi’ by the young Vanessa Paradis. Listening to it after all these years, it actually sounds great – the sparse production and breezy arrangement are refreshingly easy on the ear compared to today’s cluttered and compressed radio hits.  

And there’s nothing sleazy about it after all: it really is just a song about a taxi driver! (Sorry to disappoint you.) Mademoiselle Paradis, or Madame Depp if you prefer, is still making music. In collaboration with French rocker M she released ‘Divinidylle’, a likeable album of catchy guitar pop, back in 2007 and toured successfully all last year. But outside France she’ll be forever associated with this 1988 single.

So, for the day that’s in it, “tous ensemble!” and “vas-y Joe”:


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25

Bruce Springsteen has just been announced to headline the first day of the Vieilles Charrues festival in Brittany on Thursday 16 July, with The Killers and Fiction Plane as support that day.

Tickets for that day cost only €49, on sale Friday 30 January at 7 a.m. Irish time from usual French outlets like www.fnacspectacles.com and the festival website: http://www.vieillescharrues.asso.fr/

Springsteen's appearance at Les Vieilles Charrues will be his only French concert this year, according to the festival's organisers.

A four-day pass for the full festival will cost €114. More updates on the full line-up to follow.


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Nuggets from our archive

2007 - REM live in the Olympia, by Michael O'Hara. Possibly the definitive review of any of REM's performances during their 2007 Olympia residency. Even the official REM website linked to it.