The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter


Conor O'Brien popped over to Paris last week, playing a solo set as support to Wild Beasts at the Maroquinerie.

Conor O'Brien/Villagers live at the Maroquinerie in Paris, April 2010

(As it happens, it was three years ago this week that his former band, The Immediate, played one of their last concerts at the same Paris venue.)

A packed house saw and heard the Villagers man (right) run through tracks from his forthcoming album, 'Becoming A Jackal'. O'Brien was armed with a three-quarter sized acoustic guitar that had the soundhole taped over, giving a dull yet warm effect.

However, the stripped-down show shone an unflattering light on O'Brien's material. With no backing or arrangements, his songs sound like typical Irish male singer-songer fare - hook-free tunes and laboured lyrics. In particular, O'Brien's words stood out for unforgiving attention. He seems too fond of the rhyming dictionary - for example, there's a "shackles/jackals" groaner and one of his female characters is called Laurie only because the next line's rhyme is "life story".

Elsewhere it's all tired emotional shorthand like 'truth' and 'love' and 'light', delivered by O'Brien with grimaces, closed eyes and a Hansard-esque quiet-to-loud delivery. There's no room for an emotional response from the listener - O'Brien's facial contortions and facile lyrics tell us what we should be feeling.

Villagers are being hailed by some as the next big Irish thing. However, on the evidence of this acoustic set and the full-band recordings O'Brien is more like Whelan's lock-in version 2.0.

Earlier in the week, O'Brien was in London to appear on 'Later...' with Jools Holland. From that show, here's Villagers with 'Becoming A Jackal':

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Two Door Cinema Club aren't the only Ulster band making a big impression in France this season.

And So I Watch You From Afar live in concert

Choice-nominated Belfast post-rock foursome And So I Watch You From Afar (right) have done their Gallic chances no harm at all after a storming show at the Flèche d'Or in Paris last Wednesday.

The previous title-holder in rocking the Flèche was Ted Leo, whose shuddering 2007 juggernaut of a show can still be heard echoing in the toilets. ASIWYFA smacked down the gauntlet with a set that was loud, swaggering and uproarious fun.

Fun is the key. Post-rock can be cold and cerebral; hard rock is often crass and cheap. But ASIWYFA-rock is built for jumping and roaring and headbanging and air-punching. The sizeable crowd, mostly French as far as we could hear, went mad.

It helps, of course, that ASIWYFA come across as committed and likeable. Rory Friers flung himself around the stage and even down the front of the crowd. And the impish Tony Wright seemed genuinely chuffed at the ecstatic reaction of the Paris crowd. Two songs in and he thanked the crowd for coming: "Merci pour l'arrivée!" - which actually means "Thanks for the finishing line!"

Fortunately, there was a whole night of rocking out ahead - and ASIWYFA will certainly go a long way further in France.

No footage from the Flèche online yet, so here are And So I Watch You From Afar at the Damnation Festival in Leeds last year with 'If It Ain't Broke, Break It'. Rock!

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You might remember our former blogging colleague Key Notes and his epic Dublin Marathon run last year. (Sample sentence: "It was now all about ignoring the pain in my right knee (akin to replacing your knee joint with a testicle and running on it for 12 or so miles), and just finishing the race.")

This year, all the CLUAS long-distance running responsibility fell on the shoulders of your Seine-side correspondent. And so this morning your blogger ran in the Paris Marathon for the second time. (You'll remember that Joe Strummer once ran the Paris Marathon, as well as the London equivalent twice.)

The 2010 Paris Marathon setting off down the Champs-Elysées.

The course is quite impressive - starting on the Champs-Elysées, out the rue de Rivoli past Bastille, a tour of the Bois de Vincennes, back into town along the river past the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, then through the Bois de Boulogne and home on the Avenue Foch, just behind the Arc de Triomphe. The route is relatively flat - there's no long uphill drag to compare with the notorious Milltown-Clonskeagh stretch of the Dublin Marathon. And the weather - sunny but not too warm - was great.

Your correspondent, mindful of being your representative in Paris, ran hard and well. For many Parisian women watching the race, it was their first time seeing a real man - medical services performed many corset-loosening procedures along the route.

There was a musical aspect to the marathon - every mile or so a live band or DJ provided motivational tunes. Things began badly: the race started to the inane shouting of Black Eyed Peas. Fortunately, the very first live act was a brass band playing Blondie's 'Atomic' - this set the scene for a pop-tastic marathon.

Most of the live music came from samba groups or brass bands, both great for the spirits. Just before halfway, one brass band was playing 'Thriller', which sounded fun. A French rock band was murdering 'One' by U2, inspiring us to dash out of earshot.

But our abiding musical memory of the 2010 Paris Marathon is an unlikely yet inspired tune. Two miles from home, along a seemingly-endless stretch through the Bois de Boulogne, we passed a loudspeaker blaring out a disco-pop song you wouldn't associate with long-distance running - 'In Private' by Dusty Springfield. Now, both of Dusty's parents were from Tralee, your blogger's home town, and even at the height of her popularity she performed there. As well as that, it's a cracking song - one of several classy singles she made with the Pet Shop Boys.

So, for all you marathon runners out there, here's the erstwhile Mary O'Brien, first-generation Kerrywoman, with the excellent 'In Private':

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After her successful L.A. double-act with Beck, Charlotte Gainsbourg is duetting again. But this time she's not straying so far from home.

The award-winning actress, now established as an indie pop star, will release a version of 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)', the notorious 1969-70 single by her parents, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. From 2 April, Serge's birthday, the track will be streamed on Charlotte's website and downloadable from online music-sellers; all profits will go to charity.

Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg in 1986

Charlotte's version is based on a 1967 demo version of the song from the recording session by Serge and Brigitte Bardot, for whom the song was originally written. Due mainly to protests by Bardot's husband, this version went unreleased at the time. Two years later, Serge met Jane Birkin and the two brought the song into everlasting infamy.

The new 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' features the late Serge in his original role - his voice mixed into a ghostly, eerie echo that suggests the great man is singing from the nether world (as opposed to the nether regions). Charlotte sounds as refined and demure as ever. Despite a rather treacly remix of the trademark Gainsbourg symphonic strings, the duet works well.

Will this version cause as much controversy as the original? Well, it can hardly be as controversial as the last Serge/Charlotte duet - 'Lemon Incest' from 1986, where papa and 14-year-old daughter extolled the virtues of 'a love that will never be'.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is touring Europe and North America this summer, though she has no Irish concert scheduled yet. It remains to be heard if 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' will feature in her setlist.

 The amateur videomakers are already on the job - here's Charlotte and Serge with 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' version 2010:

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The story so far: Two French musicians toil away in semi-obscurity, resigned to life under the radar. Little do they suspect that someone is watching them. Now read on:

Some musicians are happy to be local heroes, cult artists avoiding the harsh media glare and 'Hello'-wedding of celebrity.

But no profile is low enough, no cult act obscure enough, no home-made CD-R indie enough to hide you from the CLUAS gaffer. He sees you when you're sleeping; he knows when you're awake.

And so your Paris correspondent received orders: find Natural Snow Buildings!

Natural Snow Buildings

So, Natural Snow Buildings (right) are a duo: he's Mehdi and she's Solange. They come from Bourgogne, the eastern region of France we know in English as Burgundy - home of fine wine, delicious beef stew and a shade of red that never looks good on trousers.

By any definition, Natural Snow Buildings are a cult act. They've been making records since 1997, often home-made and with careful artwork. Each of them also puts out solo work - Mehdi as TwinSisterMoon and Solange as Isengrind. Their product is usually released in very limited quantities - 500 copies is a typical pressing run. And most of those copies get snapped up by eager devotees.

What do they sound like? Well, what we've heard so far is lo-fi alt-folk with a touch of experimental post-rock.

And is it good, this lo-fi alt-f. with the touch of exp. p-r? Yes, it is. We recommend their most recent album, 'Shadow Kingdom', and an earlier double-album called 'The Dance Of The Moon And The Sun'. The music is beguiling and thoughtful, the vocals warm and careworn.

You can hear some tracks on the Natural Snow Buildings MySpace page. From 'Shadow Kingdom', here's what they probably think of all this paparazzi-esque CLUAS celebrity spotlight - 'Go Away, Disappear':

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The first of France's major summer music festivals to announce its 2010 bill is Les Vieilles Charrues. The annual trip to Carhaix in Brittany takes place on 15-18 July.

Les Vieilles Charrues 2010

You might remember that last year's event featured Bruce Springsteen in his only French show of 2009. This year's stars are not as legendary but still attractive enough to ensure a healthy turnout.

Top of the bill are Muse. Now, the English trio are playing two huge concerts at the Stade de France in Paris this June, so it might seem strange that they play another large French show only weeks later. However, Les Vieilles Charrues attracts fans for the unique experience of a festival in the remote west of Brittany - which is also relatively accessible for English fans. Also, Brittany in July is full of young holidaymakers from around Europe, so Les Vieilles Charrues has a greater potential audience than its isolated location suggests.

Back to the line-up - the other name that interests us is Phoenix. However, the Grammy winners are surprisingly far down the bill - tugging the forelock to Mika but also to four other French acts. Who are these artists that the home fans seem to prefer over Phoenix?

We featured Indochine early last year - '80s post-punk veterans who will also be filling the Stade de France this summer. Diam's is a tomboyish rapper who raised some eyebrows when she converted to Islam recently. Alain Souchon is one of these old chanson française guys that you non-Frenchies don't need to know about.

Jacques Dutronc

The other French headliner is Jacques Dutronc (left, in his youth). If that name sounds familiar, it's because you may have heard it in the original version of 'Brimful Of Asha' by Cornershop - at the end, when Tjindar Singh is listing his old records, he mentions "Jacques Dutronc and the Bolan boogie".

So who is Jacques Dutronc? Well, as a young man in the 1960s he was a pop star, and by the '90s he had become a respected actor. He is the partner of Françoise Hardy, perhaps France's coolest female pop singer ever - and their son Thomas Dutronc is now a star himself, making a likeable kind of jazz manouche-influenced acoustic chanson-pop.

And what does Jacques Dutronc sound like? From looking at his picture (left), you'd imagine such a suave and dapper man to croon like Bryan Ferry. In fact, Dutronc père has a rasping, hectoring voice, like a hoarse Mick Jagger. Indeed, his '60s hits bring a touch of Stones raucousness to the chanson française genre - lots of words and little melody, but with enough attitude to compensate.

As for other acts at Les Vieilles Charrues, dance music fans will recognise Vitalic and Etienne de Crécy. Revolver make a rather nice skiffle-pop sound. But you don't need to bother with Gojira or Gaetan Roussel. And if you're travelling all the way to deepest Brittany to see one-hit-wonder Mr Oizo, him of the Flat Eric fad in 1998, then you've got issues.

On which point, how does one get to deepest Brittany and Les Vieilles Charrues? First you go to a major west Breton town like Lorient or Brest (by air), Roscoff (by ferry) or Guingamp (by train). From there, the regional authority has organised coaches to Carhaix for only €3 return. Full practical details are available here in English.

Tickets for Les Vieilles Charrues went on sale last week and already all 35,000 four-day tickets have been sold - unless you choose a four-day package including transport to and from faraway French cities like Dijon or Toulouse. Never mind - you can still get a three-day pass for €88 or a one-day ticket from €37.50 to €51.20, depending on which day you choose. Muse are playing on Thursday 15 July and Phoenix on Saturday 17 July (with Indochine headlining that night). You can find full ticket details on French online ticket agents like FNAC.

For more information on the festival, check out Les Vieilles Charrues' website (in French apart from the practical info page in the link above). Here's a pleasantly bizarre song from Jacques Dutronc that Neil Hannon has been known to perform live - 'Les Playboys':

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The most prominent Irish act in France this month is Declan de Barra. The Waterford man is here for a series of shows around the country between now and May.

Declan de Barra

We've featured de Barra (right) on this blog before - he performs frequently in France, most notably a recent Paris show on the same bill as alt-country legend Josh T. Pearson. He's also been picking up good reviews from the native press.

Fans of acoustic singer-songering will certainly be impressed by de Barra's intensity and poeticism. So far he's made two albums - a 2005 release called 'Song Of A Thousand Birds' and its 2008 follow-up 'A Fire To Scare The Sun' - and alt-folk aficionados should check them out.

On his current spin around la hexagone, de Barra visits places such as Saint Brieuc, Lens and Saint Etienne. This Friday, 12 March, he has a show in the Paris region, at Les Mains d'Oeuvres in Saint-Ouen (not far from the Stade de France).

Full details of his tour, his life and his works are available on Declan de Barra's MySpace page. No news yet of any upcoming gigs back in the E.I.R.E.

Here's a striking video of Declan de Barra from a previous Paris visit. French music website Le Hiboo ('the owl') filmed him singing a capella at the Madeleine, a famous church just off the Place de la Concorde. He's singing 'Throw Your Arms Around Me', a favourite among his fans - and he's in his bare feet on the marble floor. We feel the cold just looking at him:

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Dateline: crack of dawn last Saturday morning. While you were snuggled up all warm in bed, your Seine-side correspondent staggered sleepily across town, up to the Gare du Nord and onto a train. Two hours later, we arrived at St Pancras station. That's how easy it is to go from Paris to London.

It was actually your blogger's first time there. The immediate reason for our long-overdue London debut was a match of rugby at Twickenham, so it was certainly a successful trip. But London made a big impression.

Paris is probably the most beautiful city in the world - and Paris knows it. The French capital can feel quite uptight and self-conscious, as if every Parisian believes he or she lives in the cold-blooded glamour of a fashion show. The sheer beauty of the place can be intimidating, like when you visit someone's new home and fear leaving mud on their carpet. Waiters and customer service staff demand respect for their authority, and the omnipresent French flags suggest an irritation with anything different or foreign. It's hard work to relax in Paris.

By contrast, London was warm and human. Its streets feel practical and lived in, like a comfortable pair of shoes. Compared to the hassle of Paris cafés, London pubs are blissful and kind. And even its monuments are idiosyncratic - despite their functionality and familiarity, Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament still seem so odd.

Pop music gives us proof of London's warmth and Paris's cold. There are hardly any French pop songs about Paris - certainly nothing contemporary or cool. Rap acts may rap about Paris - but only as political commentary, not as praise.

By contrast, London has been apotheosised in countless songs by its natives and residents. Waterloo Station and the nearby bridge are quite unremarkable, yet Ray Davies featured them in one of pop's most poetic songs. The Clash, The Jam, Madness and Blur have added their own layers to London's pop mythology by singing of ordinary places like Camden Town, the Tube, Hammersmith and Primrose Hill. (Of course, Paris has no pop/rock anthem to match 'London Calling'.)

Paris has inspired great painting, literature and classical music - but it has no great pop music. North American songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Stephin Merritt use Paris as shorthand for artistic freedom and old-fashioned romance respectively, but those are outsider images with little relevance to daily life Seine-side. The city's only native pop genius, Serge Gainsbourg, recorded his classic late-'60s records - including 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' - in London and filled his lyrics with American pop culture references. There's very little of Paris in Serge's masterworks. And as we've pointed out before, the entire 'French Touch' wave of mid-'90s indietronic culture - Daft Punk, Air, Michel Gondry, Phoenix - come from Versailles. 

Why is Paris so poor for pop? Well, it might be due to that intimidating air of cold-blooded glamour we mentioned earlier. Pop music is democratic and open-minded and human and un-self-conscious and fun - and Paris is none of these things. But London seems to have these qualities in abundance, hence it's the pop capital of the world.

So, is your correspondent in the wrong city? Well, that's a question for another time... Anyway, thinking of London and the future leads us nicely to four lads from Colchester who made a classic London single and video - here's Blur with 'For Tomorrow':

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One of our favourite French acts are John & Jehn (right).

John & JehnWe've told you about them before - a French couple living in London and making dark, swaggering electro-rock. John plays Velvet Underground-style scuzzed-down '50s riffs on his guitar, while Jehn looks after the cool Roxy Music-esque analogue synths. We found their first album charming and simple. But then at the Solidays festival last summer we saw them live for the first time - they were sexy and sensational.

Their second album is due out at the end of March. It's called 'Time For The Devil' and is preceded by a single of the same name.

Well, it's clear that your correspondent is not the only fan of John & Jehn - their new label Naive has clearly been spending money on them. Compared to the home-made feel of their debut, 'Time For The Devil' (the song) has top-of-the-range studio production values.

However, the song is rather slight - all atmosphere, little in the way of a memorable tune. Only Jehn's Siouxsie-esque chorus vocal hook lifts this track out of the relegation places and into mid-table safety. (For his part, John sounds like Ian McCulloch and the track has that rich and doom-laden Echo and the Bunnymen vibe.)

'Time For The Devil' (the album) will be launched with a special show at La Maroquinerie in Paris on 29 March - your correspondent hopes to be there. As we said above, this pair are great live so we'll have a better impression of their new material then.

You can get a taster of John & Jehn's new album by watching this trailer for it. As for the single, here's the video for 'Time For The Devil':

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Despite the impression we give in this blog, the most celebrated music venue in Paris is not La Flèche d'Or or La Maroquinerie. Though it may seem strange to us, those busloads of tourists much prefer to visit the Opéra.

The Opéra in Paris

The Opéra (right) is not the only opera house in Paris. Nearby is the Opéra Comique, a charming little roundhouse. Over at Bastille, a modern venue of that name is equally large but ugly like a financial services centre. The Opéra we're talking about is actually called the Opéra Garnier, named after its architect. When you say "the Opéra" in Paris, everyone assumes you mean this one.

In a city whose architectural landmarks know no restraint, the Opéra is particularly over-the-top - a Venn diagram where 'architecture' overlaps with 'wedding-cake'. (In fact, there's a small chocolate cake called an Opéra.) Seen when you're coming up from the metro station of the same name, it looms like an airship. As with many famous Paris buildings, only by walking around it can you appreciate how enormous it is. Commissioned in the mid-19th century, it symbolises the ostentatious wealth of Paris under the restored Empire. The surrounding streets, with their lines of black balcony railings, were designed by Baron Haussmann, architect of the quintessential Paris avenues and boulevards.

Paris in the time of Charles Garnier and Haussman was turbulent, to say the least. (The Avenue de l'Opéra - long, wide and slashed by narrow, angled streets - was specifically designed so that the army could outflank any barricade in the area.) By the time the Opéra was finally completed, in 1875, the Second Empire of Louis Napoléon had been ousted by the Commune, the Prussians and the Third Republic. To attend performances in the Opéra he built, Garnier had to buy a ticket.

Invited by a friend with a spare ticket to sell, your correspondent went to the Opéra recently.

It may be hard to believe, but the inside is even more extravagant than the outside. Marble, gold leaf, hardwood, chandeliers - we found it far more impressive than the chateau of Versailles. The concert hall features Chagall's famous painted ceiling - renowned composers and their works represented in daubs of bright, childlike colour. Most exciting of all is the breathtaking view from the front balcony down the avenue, which makes you feel like a lord or lady looking down on the poor people below. No wonder the people revolted.

These days, ordinary citizens can come to the Opéra too - there are some tickets available for 10 euros. However, you actually don't see the show from those seats. Of the Opéra's 2,500 or so seats, many of them only have partial views from behind pillars or balcony edges. Those ten euro seats are at the back of a box - but the people who buy them mostly come just for the music or for the experience of being inside the Opéra. Our seats were at the front of a box, but we still only saw about 70% of the stage.

We saw 'La Dame Aux Camélias', a recent ballet made from an Alexandre Dumas short story and compositions by Chopin. (France's other favourite adopted Pole besides Marie Curie, Chopin was born exactly two hundred years ago. He's buried in Père Lachaise - except for his heart, which is in a church in Warsaw.) Those ten euro punters got lucky - the orchestra's pianist gave a marvellous show. For the rest of us, the on-stage show was extravagantly beautiful.

Only by seeing live ballet do you realise how the apparent grace of the dancers hides the incredible physical demands on them. Walk on your tiptoes for five minutes and see how you feel; now imagine dancing, spinning and landing on them for an hour. Your marathon-running blogger marvels (and winces) at the strain a top ballerina puts on every tendon and ligament in her legs. Our trip to the Opéra was very educational indeed.

The Opéra in Paris is most famous because of a musical from London. Yes, a lot of those tourists are actually fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'The Phantom Of The Opera', based on Gaston Leroux's classic French novel about a disfigured man lurking in and under this same venue. (Your correspondent didn't see any phantoms at the Opéra that night. West End musicals - don't trust 'em!) So, here are Sarah Brightman and Steve Harley with its appallingly naff theme song - just for the hilariously awful video. Look out, mullety man!

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Nuggets from our archive

2003 - Witnness 2003, a comprehensive review by Brian Kelly of the 2 days of what transpired to be the last ever Witnness festival (in 2004 it was rebranded as Oxegen when Heineken stepped into the sponsor shoes).