The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter


Over and out: another let-down from AirThe new single from Air (right) is available on the band’s website. ‘Do The Joy’ is the first extract from their new album, ‘Love 2’, which is due for release on 5 October.

There are two long-standing traditions around new Air records: (1) the blather about how the duo are back to their ‘Moon Safari’ level of quality, and (2) the reality that Nicolas Godin and J.B. Dunckel have yet again served up a lazy, diluted version of the classic Air sound – drizzly synths, breathy androgynous vocals, echoing chords. If you endured the horrible ‘Pocket Symphony’ you really don’t need to let yourself in for more of the same, which is what ‘Do The Joy’ is.

But if that doesn’t dissuade you, then head to Air’s official website, where you can help yourself to a free download of ‘Do The Joy’ by signing up for the band’s newsletter. A second single, 'Sing Sang Sung', is slated for release on 24 August.

Forewarned being forearmed, here’s a one-minute extract from 'Do The Joy', which should give you the gist:

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Here’s a lovely bit of blissed-out summer folk-pop that’s getting plenty of airplay on French radio – which is quite appropriate, for reasons we shall explain.

ChicrosThe band (right) are called Chicros, formerly Los Chicros, which we believe is slang for “the skinflints”. We understand that they named themselves thus because they trawl for cheap vintage instruments picked up in markets and second hand stores.

Anyway, this Parisian foursome make an idiosyncratic sound that covers most points of the retro alt-pop spectrum – we hear flashes of Belle & Sebastian, Jonathan Richman and The Boo Radleys in there.

Chicros have just released their second album, ‘Radiotransmission’. It’s a concept album about the wireless – a quarter of the track titles feature the word ‘radio’. For the most part, it’s quite good.

The standout track is that bit of blissed-out summer folk-pop we promised in the first paragraph. It’s called ‘What’s New Today On TV?’ and has a rather delicate melody that bobs like a kite over a chiming guitar line. And the song’s sunny disposition is subverted by the blatantly saccharine chorus: “What a wonderful world we live in today”. The best pop songs often sugar-coat a bitter pill.

You can check out Chicros’ MySpace page for this and other tracks. We had hoped to bring you sound and vision: however, the video for ‘What’s New Today On TV?’ consists of clips from what seems like the less graphic parts of ‘70s German adult films. The CLUAS Legal Department are quite strict on this sort of stuff, so you’ll have to make do with a discreet link and one of those ‘not responsible for external content’ disclaimers. And don’t watch it at work, okay?

Fortunately the video for 'New Orleans' is more suited to CLUAS viewing, featuring nothing more than young children violently attacking voodoo dolls of the band:

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The media’s silly season has begun; this week’s edition of political magazine The Economist has an article on French hip-hop.

Using a government-funded urban music festival in Paris as its point of entry, the gist of the article is that the French rap scene is now maturing and being recognized by the cultural-political establishment. It’s simplistic analysis that’s stained with stereotypes, and we almost feel bad at kicking such an easy target. But we’ll kick away regardless and deal with our feelings later.

For one thing, French rap is old news. Four years ago, at a time of urban rioting in France, your correspondent wrote about how French rappers played a vital part in the media debate about the problems in suburbs. As university-educated politicians pontificated, artists like Disiz La Peste and Diam’s would rationally and articulately respond by sharing their experiences and giving a balancing point of view. Such confrontations on TV debates were important in educating mainstream France on the reality of life in their home neighbourhoods.

Furthermore, it’s simply untrue to suggest – as this article does – that state funding of a music event implies official recognition of the music being played there. In France, many large and small music festivals receive financial support from their local authority. For instance, the recent Solidays festival was in part supported by the centre-right local government of Hauts-de-Seine and featured many acts who were vocally critical of centre-right policies on immigration and minorities. The only time politics comes into play is if a controversial act raises public objections: this happened at the recent Printemps de Bourges because of the appearance of Orelsan, a rapper known for a track called ‘Sale Pute’ (‘Dirty Whore’) that featured violently misogynistic lyrics. Orelsan eventually apologized and dropped the song from his set.

As in those articles where we should be shocked at French people eating Big Macs rather than haute cuisine, this Economist piece depends on stock images of France: snobby “purists frowning into their opera glasses” are juxtaposed with the “multiethnic, semi-ghetto culture of the banlieues, where themes of exclusion, drugs and violence that inspired American rap find an echo”. Note the reinforcement of the mentality that the suburbs are synonymous with drugs and violence. For sure, social problems exist there but quite a lot of people in the banlieues are smart, conscientious community members forced to overcome prejudice towards their postcode whenever they apply for a job.

And no more so than having to live on a ranch to appreciate country music, you don’t have to come from a ghetto to make or like rap. We mentioned in our Solidays review how Manu Chao, of the third-world sounds and revolutionary politics, was born and raised in the comfortable Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. And Orelsan is from a white middle-class background too. Rap is as commercially successful here as in the USA because white middle-class kids are getting into it.

Also, the ethnic communities of France are not listening exclusively to rap and hip-hop – their musical tastes tend to reflect the variety of their origins and rap is only one (though highly visible) part of that. Rai from north Africa is so popular here that it has huge-selling stars in France like Cheb Mami – who is currently in the headlines as he is being prosecuted on accusations of forcing a girl to have an abortion. Music from the Antilles, such as zouk, is also massive here – and west African acts like Les Nubiens can easily fill large venues like the Elysée Montmartre. So it’s simply not true to blindly equate the French suburbs or French ethnic groups with rap music. And rap is being integrated with traditional ‘white’ French sounds – we featured Java recently, a hugely-popular group that combines punk, rap and musette accordion.

When The Economist tries some musical commentary by explaining the vibrancy of French hip-hop, it persists with the ghetto-culture line – which is perfectly valid – and mentions in passing two secondary reasons. First, the language quota on national radio creates a demand for French vocal music. Second, there’s a tradition of lyrical, word-heavy singing in France – not with the melodies of music-hall or pop singers like Edith Piaf or Françoise Hardy respectively, as the article states, but with the likes of Georges Brassens and their subversive ballads delivered in near-speaking tones.

But perhaps one subtle reason why rap and hip-hop have taken off in France is because they’re American. Ever since Josephine Baker became a Paris cabaret sensation in the 1920s, French music has been in thrall to the USA despite the occasional outburst of anti-Americanism. Bebop prospered in post-war Saint Germain; Johnny Hallyday and a host of imitators adapted rock n’roll by translating the lyrics of Stateside hits into French; Serge Gainsbourg’s late ‘60s masterworks are crammed with American pop-culture references (to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Ford Mustang and Harley Davidson); grunge fuelled the rise of Noir Désir, France’s biggest rock act – and French rap is just the latest in this long transatlantic tradition where America equals glamour and coolness.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too demanding of The Economist’s views on popular music. The current edition also features an obituary for Michael Jackson: you may be surprised to read which two of his biggest hit singles they describe as having a “light, infectious lilt” and a “soft, syncopated sadness”.

Here’s some current French rap for you: from his album ‘Réel’ it’s Kery James with ‘Le Retour Du Rap Français’:

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By day three of Solidays your correspondent was conscious of not spending enough time on French performers. In the two previous days we had just seen The Dø – and they’re only half-French. So we resolved to make up for lost time and fit in as many native acts as time and good taste would allow. Fired by renewed vigour and a sense of mission, your blogger rolled out of bed at the crack of noon and shuffled over to Longchamps.

At the time when most folk are sitting down to Sunday dinner, the final day of the festival weekend was kicked off by John & Jehn. We’ve already raved about this London-based French couple and their mishmash of rock, folk and electronica. Today they were a revelation.

Since that eponymous first record came out they’ve darkened their image and their sound to something closer to the Velvet Underground. Jehn has cut her girlish tresses into a sharp black bob à la  Karen O, while John now sports the type of weedy moustache worn by the louche and the seedy. Today they glam up and rock out; John’s guitar sound tears around VU/Bowie territory, while Jehn’s retro keyboarding has a Roxy Music vibe. Songs like ‘1,2,3’ and ‘20L07’, ostensibly about love, now sound like they’re about sex. Their first album was charming; on stage they’re swaggering.

Next up happened to be another French act to whom we’ve given favourable notices: Syd Matters. The acoustic folk-pop of Jonathan Morali is quite lovely and definitely worth your attention – in particular, ‘Everything Else’ sounded blissful.  That said, on a hot and humid afternoon the sound had a soporific effect; many people were lying on the grass and dozing off. We hope Morali took it as a compliment.

We must confess that we lapsed in our drive for all-out Frenchness and didn’t check out chanteuse Izia. Instead we went to hear some puppets rapping, and it was uproarious fun. Puppetmastaz had a whole marquee bouncing around to chassis-shaking beats despite the heat; you’d be surprised just how much fun it is to hear a bunny swearing in a thick Bronx accent. One criticism: quite reasonably, the French crowd got restless during lengthy between-song dialogues in breakneck American accents. Just make the bunny rap and say ‘motherfucker’, okay? That’s all we want.

More in our occasional series, ‘What The French Like’ – last week it was musette punks Java and today Mouss & Hakim. The pair are former members of a band called Zebda that had some success with a sound that mixed traditional French and ethnic sounds with a rock attitude and vigorous politics. The English-speaking world, politically centrist, usually finds ‘engaged’ music naïve or even self-important. But we often forget that in the 2002 French presidential election millions of people voted for the extreme-right Jean-Marie le Pen– and even while Mouss & Hakim were on stage, 39% of voters in a northern town called Hénin-Beaumont were giving their democratic preference to his daughter Marine in local elections there. In France, music is culture and culture is politics; we’re only just now slowly beginning to understand this country. (We should add that, even without listening to the words, Mouss & Hakim make a fine sound.)

I can see my house from here: Manu Chao liveBut our thirst for French music has its limits. We weren’t prepared to see middle-aged cartoon punks Les Wampas when across the site there was the superior dancefloor indie of Metronomy, now a foursome and without Gabriel Stebbing. And they were fantastic, rocking a lot harder than they do on record or than they did as a three-piece when CLUAS reviewed their Dublin show in June 2008.

The new rhythm section (Gbenga  Adelekan on bass and former Lightspeed Champion drummer Anna Prior, perched on a lofty riser) are forceful yet supple, while core duo Oscar Cash and Joseph Mount are agreeably eccentric - their uniform of grey shirt and over-the-shoulder light-bulb was at once strict and idiosyncratic, like their material. Older songs like ‘Trick or Treatz’ were a pleasant surprise to those only familiar with their second long-player, ‘Nights Out’ – and that album’s standout track, ‘Heartbreaker’, was ferocious and energetic. It was our personal highlight of Solidays.

Which is not to say that the festival’s big-name act was an anti-climax for us. Not only was it a Frenchman, in line with our policy of the day, but he was born and raised just beside the festival site in the comfortable suburb of Boulogne Billancourt. With this in mind it became slightly surreal to hear Manu Chao – for it was he – sing and speak in Spanish, never mind play the third-world revolutionary.

But there’s no doubt of his ideological sincerity or the immense pleasure of his live shows. So Chao’s recent material is a bit samey (enough with the police siren effects - how about an ice-cream van jingle next time?) and perhaps at moments even a bland ethno-tourist version of Caribbean/South American music. It’s still fresh and evocative and great fun – for such a politically vocal performer, Chao (above right) is good-humoured and never resorts to Bono-esque craw-thumping speeches. (Since three paragraphs ago, we’ve become more appreciative of the fact that Everything Is Political In France.) And it all sounds fantastic on a summer night in a park by the Seine.

Then afterwards all 50,000 people got out of the site and set off straightaway for home in metros and cars, and the next day no one phoned any radio shows to complain. Life is good.

[Part one (with Hockey, Magistrates and The Dø ) is there and part two (Friendly Fires, Alela Diane, The Virgins, Amadou & Mariam) is here.]

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We believe that you in Éire have been getting all het up over the queues and the wait to get into and out of Slane recently, with a general consensus that Something Must Be Done. Well, let us share our experience. To get in on the first day of last year’s edition of Solidays, the first big music festival of the Paris summer, the average wait was two hours. “Il Faut Faire Quelquechose,” said Jacques le Frenchman. And so it turned out: to enter this year’s Solidays last Friday we had to endure a queue of almost two whole minutes. And then waiting three minutes for the metro home! No doubt you’ll be in and out of Slane just as fast next summer.

Anyway, day one at the Longchamps racecourse and the first act we fell upon was Hugh Coltman, the Paris-based Englishman whose line in jazzy pop/poppy jazz is doing quite well for him here in his adopted city. It’s rather bland coffee-table fare for a sun-drenched festival, though. More in the spirit of the occasion were Lexicon, a pair of L.A. rappers much in the style of ‘Licence To Ill’-era Beastie Boys. If you’re not being too cerebral about it, then you’ll have a good time with them.

This year’s festival had a definite strand of electro-pop running through it. Magistrates are an Essex four-piece who sound like they’ve toned down the Ibiza-isms of Klaxons or injected a bit of white-boy funk into Hard Fi. They’re worth checking out if you happen to be passing their stage at some other festival, which we know is damning them with faint praise as much as comparing them to Klaxons or Hard Fi.

HockeyWe’re so cool about Magistrates because we’d much rather rave about Hockey (right). Where UK funk-pop tends to be stiff and slightly square, the US version as per Hockey is looser and sexier – though there’s an occasional bit of acoustic folk-rock thrown in to wreck your head. Still, singer Ben (in a mint-green headband/T-shirt combination straight from an '80s workout video) is likeably camp and eccentric on stage and the sense of fun is infectious. You should definitely try to catch them if you’re at Oxegen this weekend.

Mindful of this blog’s remit to report on French music, before Hockey we headed for the main stage to see some pleasant indie-pop by The Dø. That accented ‘o’ is only a mild inconvenience compared to how Björk-ly irritating singer Olivia Merilahti can be. Launching into their single ‘At Last’, it appears that her microphone isn’t working: the music plays while she mouths the words. After a first verse accompanied by whistles and boos for the sound engineer, she seamlessly starts the verse again in full voice. She was only pretending - probably to subvert the whole fascist hit-parade ideology, like, or maybe just to be wacky or even deliberately piss people off. What point she was making by balancing a folded towel on her head later in her set, we can’t say. If ever there’s a band you could like despite the singer, it’s The Dø.

You probably don't care that we skipped the French headliner, one half of rap duo NTM. (The other half was in jail.) More unforgivably for you, perhaps, we couldn’t stay for Yuksek or Digitalism, on at something like 3 a.m., because the trains stop at 2 a.m. and we had stuff to do at the crack of dawn next morning. For this unprofessionalism in not being willing to traipse home for two hours at night, the gaffer is deducting part of our CLUAS Foreign Correspondent Expense Account. And he’s sending us to Slane next year too.

[Parts 2 and 3 to follow.]

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One of the classic fears of festival-goers is that two of their favourite bands will be on simultaneously. You’ve waited months to see band X and band Y, the only two in the whole line-up you want to see, only for you to roll up to the field and find that they’ve been drawn to play at the same time. Oh, cruel fate! Heartless providence! Bloody festival organisers!

Your correspondent did not have this problem at day two of Solidays. Four acts we wanted to see: all four drawn one after the other on adjoining stages a mere summer stroll apart. Nice one!

The organisers may have done well on that front, but they could surely have found a bigger space than a marquee for Amadou & Mariam. Here’s music crying out for a main stage in the sun and sweltering heat! But that’s a minor quibble: A&M were fantastic. Dressed in metallic silver robes to complement Amadou’s gold spray-painted Stratocaster, they seem an odd couple. His is the dominant personality, with his flashy axe and guitar-playing shapes. By contrast, Mariam hardly moves, as if never told that a famous singer is expected to behave ostentatiously on stage. She stands stock-still while her facial expressions change between smile and sulk. But her clear, piercing voice is just as essential to the group’s sound as Amadou’s blistering guitar work.

An unexpectedly poignant moment comes when Amadou speaks about the festival’s objective – Solidays is an AIDS awareness event and Africa is particularly ravaged by the disease. Without any sentimentality, he sincerely thanks the audience for their solidarity: “Il faut preserver”, he says – we must save, punning on ‘preservatif’, the French word for a condom. In its own way, the pair’s music is just as life-affirming and celebratory.

Ed McFarlane of Friendly Fires (Photo credit: Shirlaine Forrest/BBC)On then to Alela Diane. The essential news to report is that even with drastically short hair she still looks hypnotically gorgeous. And she sang some songs too: those dreamy folk ballads from her two excellent albums, plus a faithful version of Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’. If she were a French speaker, she may have noticed the rather clever chant that spread through the crowd: “Allez la Diane! Allez la Diane!” Is there no way we can impress her?

The Virgins would understand: their lyrical world is hot with the struggle of trying to win over women way out of one’s league. Musically, they seem to have been weaned on ‘Miss You’ by The Rolling Stones and this is no bad thing. That mixture of funky basslines and skuzzy riffs is a winner. ‘Rich Girls’ has been something of a success here in France, but all their songs have the same hit potential. However, their encore is a cover of ‘Devil Inside’ by INXS. And Girl Talk, on late night here, drops the pounding riff of ‘Need You Tonight’ into his mix: are INXS cool now?

Saturday night draws in with some quintessential Saturday night music: Friendly Fires are magnificent live. While guitarist Edd Gibson whips up a frenzy, singer Ed McFarlane (above right) dances uncontrollably around stage in intense bursts before delivering soaring lines laced with melancholy. As you’d expect, the highlight is their song about the city just outside the gate of this venue: ‘Paris’ is a gorgeous track and all the more wonderful by being heard within sight of the Eiffel Tower.

Walking back to the metro on the way home, looking out over the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne, we remembered why we love this city as much as McFarlane clearly does. Sometimes we forget.

[Part 1, featuring Hockey, Magistrates and The Do, is here. Part 3 will follow.]

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Should you ever find yourself in Paris and need to visit the Irish embassy, head to the opposite side of the Arc de Triomphe to the Champs-Élysées. The exact address, though, always raises a puerile snigger from English speakers; it’s on the corner of rue Rude and avenue Foch.

Fortunately for our battered national image, the name of that legendary army general is pronounced “fosh”. Monsieur Rude, meanwhile, was a noted sculptor – and in French ‘rude’ simply means rough or difficult, not vulgar or bad-mannered.

The other major Irish landmark in Paris has a more dignified and appropriate location.  Le College des Irlandais, or the Irish College, is situated on rue des Irlandais, or Irish Street, just behind the Panthéon and near the Sorbonne in the historic 5th arrondissement. The building, a former seminary, is quite beautiful – in particular, the quiet courtyard and small chapel are blissfully tranquil.

It’s no longer a college but home to the Centre Culturel Irlandais, the Irish cultural centre in France. Each year dozens of Irish Erasmus students stay in the student residences there, as do visiting Irish artists. Many of those artists visit the centre to give readings, recitals or exhibitions. The centre has an active and diverse programme that also includes screenings of Irish movies and language classes for would-be gaeilgeoirs.

Even this much would be enough for us to recommend the Centre Culturel Irlandais. But then they spoil us with their médiathèque, or multimedia library, which opened to the public early last year. Ex-pats and non-Pats alike can borrow the essential classics of Irish literature and Irish studies, read Irish newspapers and watch Irish movies on DVD.

The CD section of the médiathèque has always concentrated on traditional music - and now they’ve gone and stocked up on Irish rock to such an extent that they could offer a masterclass on the subject, with all the essential course material on their shelves. The library has bought wisely and well, and is a valuable resource for any Paris resident who wants to gain a complete picture of traditional, classic and modern Irish music.

Here’s a measure of their good taste: they have the big U2 records (‘Achtung Baby’, ‘The Joshua Tree’) but not their bland recent albums. You’ll also find My Bloody Valentine there – not just ‘Loveless’ but also ‘Isn’t Anything’. (Do you have both MBV albums?) And for more indie cred, you’ll find Whipping Boy’s ‘Heartworm’, ‘Troublegum’ by Therapy?, the first Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers albums, ‘Songs From The Deep Forest’ by Duke Special and a Microdisney compilation. Also, three of the first five from the CLUAS Top 50 Irish Albums 1999-2009 are there: ‘For The Birds’, ‘O’ and ‘Free All Angels’.

In fact, most of the main contenders for ‘Best Irish Album Ever’ are stocked – as well as ‘Achtung Baby’, ‘Loveless’ and ‘Heartworm’ there’s ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, ‘Ghostown’ by The Radiators and Rory Gallagher’s ‘Irish Tour ‘74’. There are also plenty of albums from The Pogues, Thin Lizzy and Sinead O’Connor – in total, eight of the top ten Best Irish Albums Of All Time as voted by CLUAS in 2004.

Our point is that, with the breadth and depth of its collections and its busy programme of varied events, the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris puts to shame most public libraries in Ireland when it comes to promoting our art and culture. If you’re planning to stay in Paris for a while, you should pay a visit.

We'll take this opportunity, then, to play a song that deservedly resides with 'Ulysses' and 'Waiting For Godot' in the Paris pantheon of Irish culture - here's Therapy? with 'Screamager':

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Thanks to everyone who e-mailed, commented, texted, Facebooked, Twittered and physically cornered us after our recent article on record stores in Paris. We’ve got plenty of tips on music shops in the capital and en province: our plan is to visit them and report back here with our findings. Keep sending them in. First up, then, are a pair of neighbouring Paris stores suggested by FL reader Lorcan; all hail Lorcan.

The two shops are in the 11th arrondissement near Bastille, a part of town your correspondent hadn’t previously checked out in great detail. Mostly, the streets closer to the Bastille are home to kebab takeaways and alcopop bars, and we didn’t leave Dublin just to hang out in Temple-Bar-sur-Seine. But a block away on Passage Thiéré there’s a cool little venue called La Mécanique Ondulatoire (we saw Wavves there recently), so it’s no surprise that there are good music shops nearby too.

Around the corner from the Mécanique Ondulatoire is rue Keller, a wonderful street full of charming cafés and idiosyncratic specialist stores. (We’re especially thinking of the shop that sells tap-dancing shoes and associated paraphernalia. Who’d have thought the Paris hard-shoe scene was so active?) It’s also the street that clothes the rockers, metallers, ravers, skaters and Goths of Paris: whatever your taste in music you’re sure to find your gang colours in one of the boutiques here. It was our first time on this street and from this day forth we’ll be there regularly.

On rue Keller you have a record store called Born Bad which deals mainly in punk, garage, rockabilly, surf and other alternative retro. The guy behind the counter had black slicked-back hair and a well-groomed moustache like some young stud in an ‘80s New York fashion magazine: this wasn’t our usual indie-kid record shop where your correspondent is confident of out-suave-ing the hired help.

The store’s bigger sections include ‘Punk Oi ‘77-’84’ and ‘Surf ‘60s Compilations’, genres that don’t correspond to anything in our record collection. Of the more prominent album sleeves on display, among the kitsch and DIY cover art, we only recognised Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson’ - best French album ever, as we've said before. Still, we got great pleasure and no little education from flicking through the garish and bizarre record sleeves, some of which you can see on the Born Bad website along with vintage clothes and badges they stock.

The other of the two record stores was similarly strange to us. Bimbo Tower is tucked away on nearby Passage Saint Antoine, with a discretion that befits its alternative and often countercultural stock. The shop mostly sells electronic, avant-garde and experimental music for punters who probably find Warp Records just a bit too mainstream. They also have a Japanese pop section, perhaps because many of its punters are also manga fans. (The Bimbo Tower website has a section devoted to Japanese pop culture.) Like in Born Bad, almost everything on the Bimbo Tower racks was unfamiliar to us – except, surreally, the face of goofy old Jonathan Richman gurning on the cover of his recent Spanish-language album. He seemed as out of place as us.

As well as CDs whose artists we didn’t recognize, Bimbo Tower also sells that classic and almost-extinct weapon of subversion: home-made cassettes, mostly looking like they contain Teutonic metal. And they also stock books on punk and revolutionary movements and political theory; we had a flashback to the flat of a rather intense girl from our college days. Like when we were in Born Bad earlier (and that girl’s room earlier again) we felt overwhelmed and a bit out of our depth.

And this is exactly why we love Born Bad and Bimbo Tower. Pop and rock records should be new and strange and challenging and flashy and slightly intimidating – and if pop and rock record stores are like this too, so much the better. (Of course, perhaps such shops are banal to you, and your correspondent has lived a particularly sheltered and innocent live until now.) We didn’t find anything to buy there today, but we’re bloody well going to check out Punk Oi ’77-’84 and Surf ‘60s Compilations and Teutonic Metal On Home-Made Cassette and then go back there with these seeds of knowledge.

That said, we’re still not brave enough to go into the tap-dancing shop.

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Last Friday night your correspondent was at Les Nuits Zebrées, an invitation-only concert at La Bellevilloise hosted (and broadcast live) by hip Paris station Radio Nova.

Our interest was in Tony Allen, not just because of his connection to the legendary Fela Kuti but because his was the only name on the line-up that we recognized. Still, we were assured that the other acts would be just as good, so along we went in curiosity.

And the intrigue was heightened when we saw that Allen wasn’t even top of the bill, but would be on and off by 10:15 that night. Who were these people unknown to us, Oxmo Puccino and Java, headlining and filling this concert while relegating an international cult hero to a supporting role? We’ll come to them later.

First, Tony Allen, his shiny shellsuit and his 8-piece band. No sooner had he settled into his seat than he uttered the dreaded words: “Tonight we’ll be playing only new songs, no older stuff…” New songs meant safe-hands Afrobeat with support-group lyrics about celebrating everyday and living life to the max.

The group’s guitarist kept to fairly basic chicken-scratching all night, which probably accounted for his slightly demented expression: one could see that here was a man who would sooner have been celebrating savage riffs and sexy licks. Still, like reggae, Afrobeat is hard to get wrong – so long as the band is tight and the words not too distractingly naff, it’ll always get you moving.

We caught the last few numbers of Oxmo Puccino: he’s a Mali-born rapper, real name Abdoulaye Diarra. Unlike his more muscular French counterparts and their concrete-block beats, he raps along to melodic music and supple rhythms. It was impressive and likeable stuff. Oxmo Puccino will be at the Solidays festival here in Paris next weekend – as will your correspondent, and we’ll make sure to catch him again.

But what about this Java, then? Digging desperately for scraps of pre-gig info, we were told that their brand of rap + rock + trad French had filled the 1,200-punter Elysée Montmartre the previous week, so they were clearly big in France. This was news to us. All this time the room had filled to bursting. The excitement was palpable and the heat was intense: condensed sweat dripped from the low ceiling. Then on stroll Java, four thirtysomething Parisians dressed by the houses of punk and ska.

You can see how Java (left) have generated such a large live following. Their hip-hop beats get people jumping and the stiff, strident rapping of R.Wan whips them into a frenzy. Where punk bands have a guitar, Java have a very French-sounding musette accordion – this gives them an air of home-grown authenticity but also a slightly conservative familiarity which calls like a siren to the mainstream Gallic punter. Musically, there isn’t anything radically new here – modern chanson française already prizes monotone/spoken lyrics, retro instruments and the rhythms of rap and electronica.

That said, Java are hugely enjoyable live. They have in abundance what most hip-hop or French acts sorely lack – a sense of humour. They sum up their philosophy: “Java, c’est du rock n’roll… sex, accordeon et alcool” (sex, accordion and alcohol). A new song calling for ecumenical unity was potentially pompous, but its wit was underlined by R.Wan dressed as the Pope. 

And on ‘J’Me Marre’ he touches on that most painful of French sporting heartaches: Seville ’82. (Believe us: regardless of 1998, French people have still not gotten over Schumacher and that penalty shoot-out.)

Most boho French acts (and Java are certainly bourgeois bohemians, or at least heavily dependent on that demographic) make a big deal of singing right-on lyrics with crowdpleasing digs at Sarko and ‘the fascists’. Java are more subtle and less superficial than that: R.Wan prods the ruling conservative mentality by succinctly observing how Paris is petrifying into an open-air museum (‘Paris Musée’) and how today’s working classes could soon change their sympathies from the Communist Party to the right-wing Front National (‘Mona’).

We’ve been listening to Java’s new album, ‘Maudits Français’ – the title is a play on “cursed French” and “badly-said French”. Quite simply, the live energy isn’t there – the beats are lower in the mix, so the swirling retro accordion dominates and gives a rather quaint feeling to the whole thing.

Still and all, Java are worth listening to if at least to find out what’s popular in France today - check out some of their tunes on Java's MySpace page. Here they are live with their manifesto, ‘Sex, Accordeon Et Alcool’:

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Put French musicians around a dinner table or bar counter these times and the conversation will probably turn – in jest or in earnest – to le loi Hadopi, Hadopi’s Law. This is neither a French cop show, obscure rule of physics nor droll observation about how your tartine always falls to the carpet butter side down.

Hadopi is not a person but the acronym of the Haute Autorité pour la Diffusion des Oeuvres et la Protection des droits sur Internet, a proposed state body to regulate the traffic of copyrighted material on the Internet.  And le loi Hadopi is a government-sponsored bill that seeks to create the Hadopi and punish the act of downloading or sharing copyrighted files illegally, i.e. without paying. Under a three-strikes system, an offender would receive two warnings before finally having their internet access cut off.

The bill has had a troubled life. Introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right government, it was first supported and then opposed by the deeply-divided opposition Socialist Party. But it soon became clear that France’s left-leaning mainstream music artists actually favoured the bill, although with some discomfort at being seen to support something sponsored by Sarko. Realising that they had seriously misjudged their own constituency, some Socialist deputies abstained an Assembly vote in April where the bill was defeated, and then from the May vote in which a re-jigged bill was passed. It was then sent to France’s Constitutional Council to check that it was legally sound.

But on 10 June the Council sensationally rejected the bill as unconstitutional. Giving a non-judicial body such as a state agency the power to cut off a person’s internet and personal communications access, the council decided, would breach two principles: presumption of innocence and liberty of expression.  Now the bill will be redrafted and returned to a parliamentary vote.

With impeccable timing, then, an association called Libre Accès held its annual Fête des Arts Libres (Free Arts Festival) in the town hall of the 2nd arrondissement of Paris last Saturday night. The day and night’s programme included discussion of the loi Hadopi and performances by acts who have chosen to make their work freely available on the Internet. Your correspondent was there to see a Paris band called Lonah, whose entire back catalogue of two albums and one E.P. is yours to download for free from their website. We recommend you check them out. (Obviously, if a band makes their music available for free then nobody’s going to have their internet snipped.)

What’s better than one good band? Two good bands! Also on the line-up were Franco-Venezuelan foursome Guarapita, whose sound is that of Latino revolutionaries gone ska. The crowd liked them a lot - even more when they started serving vodka and orange out of a plastic bucket. Free music and free booze: life is good.

Regardless of how the mainstream artistic world feels, the trend for celebrating ‘free’ music is spreading. The Fête de la Culture Etudiante (Student Culture festival) will take place on 27 June at the Bellevilloise in Paris. There’s no entry charge, and the festival’s slogan is ‘Libres comme les arts’: free as the arts. (Though we must admit we'd be willing to pay to hear a band from Angers called Misty Socks play their fine new single 'Not A Wanker', pronounced "wonker" à la française. We've made up none of that.)

Meanwhile, le loi Hadopi lies waiting to re-appear in some new form, as intriguing a drama as any U.S. series you could download without paying. Perhaps it’s closer to a French cop show after all.

Here's the atmospheric electro-rock of Lonah's 'Les Effacés':

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Nuggets from our archive

1999 - 'The eMusic Market', written by Gordon McConnell it focuses on how the internet could change the music industry. Boy was he on the money, years before any of us had heard of an iPod or of Napster.