The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter

23

'Gainsbourg', Joann Sfar's disappointing biopic of France's greatest ever pop star, opens in Irish cinemas on 30 July.

You'll remember that we reviewed it in detail here when it first came out in France back in January. Just to recap: the first half-hour featuring the boy Lucien Ginsburg is energetic and promising, but the rest of the movie (focusing on the adult Serge Gainsbourg) is merely a series of clumsy caricatures with no character development or motivation. Ever wondered how the worldwide scandal and fame of 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)'still pop's most notorious single, affected Serge and Jane Birkin? Well, you won't find out from this film.

That said, if you're a Francophile you'll probably find it interesting enough. The initial concept - personifying Gainsbourg's self-doubt as a cartoonish alter-ego - is quite clever, even if Sfar makes it carry too much of the film's dramatic weight. Eric Elmosnino, an astounding dead-ringer for Gainsbourg, is watchable throughout. Still, the whole film survives on the good-will created by its entertaining first act.

Music-lovers will get little insight on the creative processes of a genuine pop genius: Serge is just shown serving up ready-prepared classics like 'Comic Strip'. Non-francophiles will quickly tire of seeing French stars impersonated for the amusement of a French cinema audience.

However, if this film and its publicity help introduce Irish audiences to Serge's 1967-71 golden period, some of the most thrilling and influential pop music ever made, then it will have done some good. 

Looking very cool indeed, here's Serge Gainsbourg smoking along to his magnificent 'Initials B.B.':


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21

Your Paris correspondent finds it the most over-hyped and over-rated Irish album of recent years, but what do we know? Everyone else in Ireland can only rave about Villagers and 'Becoming A Jackal'.

Conor O'Brien of Villagers busking in front of Amelie's greengrocer, Abbesses, Montmartre, Paris, France (Still image from video by Le Hiboo)

This party line has also been adopted by our UK neighbours: Conor O'Brien's recent appearance on 'Later... with Jools Holland' was this week followed up by him popping up on the Mercury Music Prize shortlist for 2010. (Only a begrudger and player hater would dare suggest that he's the token Irish act on the list.)

And like one of those animated map graphics showing the Nazis' advance through Europe, Villagers-love has spread to France.

On the radio, O'Brien joined Laura Leishman for an interview and acoustic session on her high-profile show on alt-music station Le Mouv'. Villagers tunes have also popped up in the playlist of C'est Lenoir, France Inter's long-running and much-loved indie hour.

In the press, 'Becoming A Jackal' has got the serious rave. Les Inrockuptibles devoted a typically flowery feature to the "little genius" O'Brien and "his gothic folk, haunted by black lights and bruised words" comparable to Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Prefab Sprout and Van Dyke Parks. The more readable Magic RPM, in their 5-out-of-6 review of what they consider "a masterpiece", spot a different set of reference points: Paul Simon, Belle And Sebastian and Leonard Cohen. 

On the web, O'Brien features in a set of 'Takeaway Show'-style performance videos by French site Le Hiboo. ('Hiboo' is the French for 'owl'.) Filmed in Abbesses, a less-touristy part of Montmartre, the videos have O'Brien strumming and singing and strolling all at the same time. Sharp-eyed French movie fans will recognise the shop in the picture above: the greengrocer's in 'Amelie'. (No wonder that grocer was always in such a foul mood.)

Anyway, for the countless millions of you who like Villagers, check out Conor O'Brien on the streets of Montmartre singing 'Set The Tigers Free' and, below, 'Home':


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19

Your correspondent predicts that from next week French electronica will have yet another global star. His name will be Arnaud Bernard, his first name reversed to give the nom de pop of Onra.

Broth of a boy: Onra

How do we know this? Well, because next Monday (24 May) Onra will release his new album, 'Long Distance'. It's brilliant, and it should make him very popular indeed.

Truth be told, Onra (right) isn't a complete unknown. He became something of a cult hero on the blogosphere with his 2007 album 'Chinoiseries'. The title is a French-ism that suggests 'Chinese stuff' but actually means 'bureaucratic red tape', and the music was inspired by old Oriental pop records he picked up while visiting Vietnam, his father's homeland.

Now back in Paris, Onra's attention has turned from east to west. 'Long Distance' is drenched in the old-school dancefloor sounds of Detroit and New York. One track, 'WeeOut', starts with a burst of good old-fashioned scratching before laying down some très '80s beats and synths. Other tracks are more soulful, like 'Oper8tor', 'High Hopes' and the title track. And the whole thing fizzes with electronica. To say it's certain to be the best French album of 2010 feels like we're damning Onra with faint praise.

As it happens, the record is coming out on Dublin label All City Records, so we can make an adopted Irish artist of him. He's even launching the album in Dublin, with a show at Twisted Pepper on Abbey Street next Friday (28 May). G'wan Oirland!

On a related note, the Irish-speakers among you will have noticed that 'Onra' sounds exactly like 'anraith', the word as Gaeilge for 'soup' (hence the title pun). Wouldn't it be gas, right, if he was doing a show in the Gaeltacht and he went for dinner beforehand, and for his starter he asks for the soup, because he's Onra and the soup is anraith and that's him and... Oh wait: this presupposes that he'd be ordering in Irish. And what if he decides to have the salad instead? Well, maybe because he doesn't speak Irish he thinks the server is asking his name instead of his order and he says 'Onra' and instead he gets soup! Wouldn't it be wild? Or what if-

CLUAS gaffer: Just post the link and the tune, you eejit!

Um, right. To prepare for the album launch in Dublin next Friday you can hear some of 'Long Distance' on Onra's MySpace page. Here's 'High Hopes'. Twenty-five seconds in, what does that keyboard riff remind you of?


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15

At first glance, Parisian four-piece Gush seem like a French equivalent to Kings Of Leon. The band members are all related - brothers Xavier and Vincent Polycarpe plus their cousins Mathieu Parnaud and Yan Gorodetzky. Also, their fashion sense is more back-woods than Left Bank: shaggy hair, vintage leather and the sort of long-sleeve, round-neck, three-button T-shirt that Grizzly Adams would wear as an undergarment.

Gush

But soundwise Gush (right) don't follow the Followills down the road of southern-fried blues-rock. The four French lads are certainly retro, but their thing is post-Beatles pop and folk-rock - say, the very early Lennon or McCartney solo stuff, later Beach Boys or a bit of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The storming semi-acoustic rocker 'No Way', reinforced with steely harmonies, shows the strength of those influences to best effect. Still, don't discount the novelty of Frenchmen who actually sing and write melodies.

Gush are starting to make a stir in France. Recently they released their first album, 'Everybody's God' (Irish music fans may remember a Donegal band called Georgia who had a record of the same name in the early '90s) and an upcoming Paris show at the sizeable Cigale has already sold out. Now they're picking up airplay with a strange and distinctive single that's a little different to the rest of their tracks.

On paper, 'Let's Burn Again' promises to be vastly uncool - it has the upper-register backing harmonies and staccato keyboards of mid-Atlantic, middle-of-the-road '70s pop. Fortunately, music isn't made on paper: 'Let's Burn Again' sounds so odd and unhip that it's almost fascinating, especially when you try to match the sound to the look of the band.

You can hear more on the Gush MySpace page. Make sure you listen to both tracks we mentioned, 'Let's Burn Again' and 'No Way' - quite different but each charming in its way. Which one will we choose for our video? The strange, unhip one with keyboards, of course! Here's 'Let's Burn Again':


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13

French summer music festivals tend to be smaller than their international counterparts. There's certainly no Gallic event that compares in size to Roskilde, Sziget, Werchter or Glastonbury. La Route du Rock, for instance, only ever has around two dozen acts.

Eurockeennes 2010

Perhaps the biggest summer music festival in France is Eurockéennes, which takes place on the first weekend of July near the eastern city of Belfort. This year's four-day event will have around 80 acts - plenty of whom are top-quality marquee names. And the festival's spectacular lakeside setting guarantees a memorable experience.

The first day, Thursday 1 July, is a starter ahead of the main course. To serenade punters as they arrive from all round Europe, those enjoyable Icelandic electropoppers FM Belfast will play in one of the festival campsites.

Real business begins on Friday 2 July. Jay-Z and Missy Elliot bring the bling-bling of genuine rap/R n'B superstars, while Charlotte Gainsbourg supplies some home-grown glamour. Also on the bill that day and night: Hot Chip, Foals, Kasabian, Patrick Watson, The Black Keys and our own Two Door Cinema Club in what seems to be their now-fortnightly French gig.

Saturday's notional headliners are The Hives but the real draw that night will surely be The Specials, The XX and Broken Social Scene. A strong French side for that day's line-up features Vitalic, Emilie Simon and General Elektriks. Further down the running order are Memory Tapes, also worth catching.

A quaint Eurockeennes tradition is to make the last night's headliner a real stinker, to cater for those who need to skip out early for the last bus or train. Last year it was Slipknot; this year it's Mika. But the rest of Sunday's line-up is stuffed with quality. Massive Attack and Martina Topley-Bird are on trip-hop duty; LCD Soundsystem and Empire Of The Sun serve up electro-pop, an Ethiopiques show should sound blissful on a summer afternoon, and there are some indie gems like Health, Fuck Buttons and The Middle East to be found here and there.

A weekend pass costs only €95 and a single day's ticket costs just €39. Camping on the festival site is free for ticket-holders to a limit of 12,000 people. If you book early enough to get a cheap Queasyjet flight to nearby Mulhouse, you could be lucky enough to secure your entire festival weekend in sunny France, travel included, for less than the price of an Irish festival ticket. (In addition, there are special bus + ticket packages to bring punters from most major French cities.)

Full details in English are available on the Eurockeennes 2010 website. Here's 'The Songs That We Sing' by this year's biggest French name, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Neighbour of ours, don't you know:


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08

Back in 2007 we introduced you to Tender Forever, a Bordeaux electro act based in Oregon, USA.

Melanie Valera, a.k.a. Tender Forever

As you might recall, Tender Forever is not a group but the nom de pop of Mélanie Valéra (right) - yes, a mere 'de' short of sharing her name with the dominant public figure of 20th century Ireland. (Our non-Irish readers will know Éamon de Valera as the baddie in the film 'Michael Collins'.)

The PR opportunities in Ireland would have been wonderful - an electronica version of 'Amhrán na bhFiann' to close the next Fianna Fáil Árd-Fheis; a residency at Áras an Uachtaráin; a photo op where she symbolically defends a packet of Boland's cream crackers against an English stag party. (As she's now domicile in the States, her American connection would grant her immunity.) And she's tall, skinny and dark-haired - are we sure they're not related?

Alas, Mélanie Valéra will have to rely on her music to make an impact in Ireland. Fortunately, her music is good. 'No Snare' is the third Tender Forever album: another likeable collection of idiosyncratic alt-folk-flavoured electronica.

The title may suggest an animal trap but is actually inspired by an absent drum sound, according to the Tender Forever MySpace page:

NO SNARE is less a rejection of things that have been, as it a reconfiguration. Take away the snare and there isn't a loss, just a new song. As we pass through the flood of moments that is our lives we make a constant stream of decisions as to what to hold on to and what to let go of.  But it is always our life, even as it changes radically.

Valéra's lyrics tend to be as heartfelt, contemplative and personal as that teenage-poetry blurb suggests. And her pick n' mix of pounding rhythms creates a sense of emotional urgency, which gives her songs a human warmth not always evident in electronic music.

Check out les chansons de Valéra at her MySpace page. Here's our favourite of her new songs, what has all the comely maidens dancing at the crossroads -  the excellent 'Like The Snare That's Gone':


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02

One of France's bona fide pop legends has just released a new album. 'La Pluie Sans Parapluie' (in English, "the rain without an umbrella") is the twenty-sixth studio album by Françoise Hardy.

Françoise Hardy

You might recognise the name from her 1994 collaboration with Blur on 'La Comédie', a reworking of 'To The End'. However, like with Serge Gainsbourg (of whom more later), there's a lot more to Hardy than a sole Franco-English duet known in the U.K. (For one thing, she had a UK Top 20 hit in 1965 with 'All Over The World'.)

First, though, some vital Françoise Hardy trivia for your next pub quiz:

Factoids aside, we reckon Hardy was one of the first female singers to become successful with her own compositions - her 1962 debut single 'Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles' sold half a million copies. Her early style was somewhere between US folk and French chanson, often played simply on an acoustic guitar or piano.

Rare for a pre-electronica French act, Hardy made a concerted effort at success in the UK - she released three albums of songs in English, mostly containing translations of her original French songs. The third of these albums, 'If You Listen' from 1971, captures the late-'60s-early-'70s pastoral-folk-pop vibe: it's quite good. (You can picture students of that time listening to it in their bedsits.)

As for her best ever song, you might know it as a cover version. 'Comment Te Dire Adieu' was a 1990 hi-NRG disco hit for Jimmy Somerville and June Miles Kingston. Hardy's version was a French chart success in 1969 - and was itself a cover version.

Before 'Comment Te Dire Adieu' there was 'It Hurts To Say Goodbye' - a typically maudlin and manipulative slushfest by Vera Lynn. Apparently, Hardy heard an instrumental version, liked the melody and asked for some French lyrics from none other than Serge Gainsbourg. Words done en français, Serge then decided to sort out the music.

Even by the dizzyingly high standards of Gainsbourg's work at that time, 'Comment Te Dire Adieu' is magnificent. Like all great pop songs, its apparent simplicity hides a satisfying depth and complexity. The original's slushy melodrama is replaced by clipped arrangements that have an edgy sang-froid; listen just before the first verse for the pedal cymbal that hisses like a cobra. Serge's trademark symphonic strings infuse the song with glamour and a slight hint of feeling - but only a slight hint. Hardy remains impeccably poised and aloof throughout - even her spoken-word middle section is delivered matter-of-factly, like a dispassionate voiceover. (Compare it to the except of dialogue from Charlotte Gainsbourg used as the intro to Madonna's 'What It Feels Like For A Girl'.)

Just as remarkable as Gainsbourg's arrangements were his new lyrics. Already known as a provocateur, and with pop's most notorious single soon to follow, Serge had the ingenious idea of making nearly all the lines rhyme with '-ex'. As the '-ex' rhymes become more imaginative, the song progresses towards a seemingly inevitable encounter with the most taboo '-ex' word of all. (Even today, how many mainstream English-language pop songs feature the word 'sex'? Not the meaningless 'sexy' but the blunt 'sex'?) What's more, in French 'sexe' is the word for the reproductive organ. One can imagine the listener (and the censor) of the time wondering where this song would go.

(Had this song been released in the UK, it would have been banned by the BBC for an unacceptable '-ex' word: a piece of product placement in the third and final verse.)

'Adieu' is something of a definitive 'goodbye forever', where 'au revoir' means 'until we see each other again'. In English, of course, we can use 'goodbye' to mean both 'adieu' and 'au revoir'. Here in glorious colour is the ultra-cool Françoise Hardy of 1969 with 'Comment Te Dire Adieu'. Goodbye:


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29

Nasal mucus - British and Irish people know it as 'snot', while our north American friends speak of 'boogers'. Note how the European term is a collective noun while the US/Canadian word is countable; this suggests that-

CLUAS gaffer: What are you on about, you eejit?

Your correspondent: Why, it's the intro for a post about a French singer and his cracking new tune. Our readers will want to know the cultural and linguistic backgrou-

CLUAS gaffer: Just post the bloody tune, alright? And keep it respectable - I'm staying at Silvio Berlusconi's villa this weekend and I don't need you embarrassing the site!

Boogers

Right. Umm... Stéphane Charasse is from Tours in the picturesque Loire region of central France. A former DJ on local indie radio station Radio Béton ('béton' is the French word for 'concrete'), Charasse makes idiosyncratic indie music under the nom de pop of Boogers. His second album, 'As Clean As Possible', is out now.

The lead-off track from 'As Clean As Possible' is a real charmer. It's called 'I Lost My Lungs'. The happy-go-lucky vocalising at the start might remind you of 'Widths and Heights' by Manchester electro-folkie Magic Arm. Charasse's monotonous spoken-word verses - so typical of French male singer-songers - are outweighed by the snappy, melodic arrangement around him. In particular, the guitar parts - funky clipped chords in the verses and a fizzy rising scale in the middle section - are positively joyous.

Charasse has found a novel way to promote his new album - concerts on the train. Boogers will perform on the TGV from Paris to Nîmes on the afternoon of 27 May and on the Paris-Lyon service on 2 June. Both appearances will be followed by a showcase at the local FNAC record store, depending on the timely arrival of his train.

You can find more info and tracks on Boogers' MySpace page. Here's the video for 'I Lost My Lungs', set on a train station platform:


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24

Our regular readers know by now this blog's taste in pop. Catchy and swaggering, please - and if it's dark and electro-fied too, so much the better. We find that in France it's the boy-girl duos who do this best - Pravda and John & Jehn, for instance.

Pink Noise Party

Joining that esteemed company are Pink Noise Party (right), a Paris pair comprising Joy Buckley and Syd Rey. (Pink noise is a sound frequency just lower than white noise, and is a feature of analogue keyboards.)

What do we know about them? Well, perusing their MySpace page the following facts present themselves:

  • They're both quantum physicists, meeting in university at a class that Syd was teaching and Joy taking.
  • They build their own keyboards, using parts from old synthesisers.
  • They give underwater performances.
  • They have a gig this August at a festival in Balaclava near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, scene of the (in)famous Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.

Even if none of that is true (though quantum physicists are quite welcome to become pop stars), Pink Noise Party are already far more interesting, imaginative and creative than most bands. So far, so good!

But what about the tunes? Well, they're synth-y and slinky - those home-made analogue keyboards have the retro vibe of Roxy Music and the disco-tronic glamour of The Human League. Taut guitar riffs put the swagger into tracks like 'X Buddy' and 'Golden Blond Pulsar Trance' (quantum physicists, remember), while 'Pesky Girl' has an industrial harshness. And the songs have melodies and choruses, stuff most French bands seem to consider contemptible.

Which is not to say that Pink Noise Party haven't been thinking about their art. Back to their MySpace blurb to see how they see themselves: "They describe their music as l’art consomme de melody pop [...] Their lyrics are in turn introspective or committed, pondering in particular on the frantic tempo of post-modern western lifestyle."  Oh dear.

But anyway, you only have to listen to their tunes, not make dinner-table conversation with them. Check out the Pink Noise Party MySpace page to hear some of their fine tracks. Here's the only video we've found of them - from a show earlier this month at L'International in Paris (a regular haunt of your correspondent), it's 'By Numbers':


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22

Rock en Seine might be familiar to you, by name at least. Last year the annual Paris summer festival earned its place in rock history/pub quiz trivia when Oasis split up mere minutes before they were due to go on stage.

Indeed, Rock en Seine has had recurring problems with its choice of headliners. Two years in a row, Amy Winehouse cancelled at the last minute. Such are the perils of booking tabloid-friendly big-name rock stars.

Rock en Seine 2010

It seems that the festival organisers have learned their lesson: this year Rock en Seine goes for weekend-wide credibility rather than putting all their eggs in one basket-case.

And they've done well - Rock en Seine 2010, on 27-29 August  in the Parc de Saint-Cloud on the edge of Paris, looks much more impressive than recent editions. Mainstream and alternative music fans alike will find much to enjoy.

That said, the first day doesn't appeal greatly to your indie-kid correspondent. Blink 182, of all people, top a bill of '90s nostalgia acts - Cypress Hill, Skunk Anansie and Underworld. Foals, The Kooks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club fill out the field.

Day two makes up for it. True, the headliners are another '90s heritage act - Massive Attack - and a safe-hands rock band - Queens of The Stone Age. But LCD Soundsystem, Two Door Cinema Club (for their monthly French concert), Kele Okereke (of Bloc Party) and Jonsi (of Sigur Ros) bring a breeze of cool freshness that should clear the flatulent stink of Paolo Nutini.

On the third day: Arcade Fire, Roxy Music, Beirut, Eels and Wave Machines. Oh yes.

More acts will be revealed in June. At the time of writing, there are no French artists booked for Rock en Seine. None at all. No doubt a token 'new bands stage' will be cooked up for appearance's sake at least.

A weekend pass for the très tasty Rock en Seine 2010 costs a trifling €99, and can be booked online from FNAC and other French ticket-pushers. The festival site is at the end of a Paris metro line and even has the LUAS passing by. On-site camping is available for three-day passholders and must be booked online: €45 for a two-person tent-space and €90 for the four of you.

Full details, including online ticket and campsite reservations, are available in English and French at the Rock en Seine website.

No French acts yet, so for the moment this is as French as Rock en Seine gets - LCD Soundsystem's 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House':


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Nuggets from our archive

2001 - Early career profile of Damien Rice, written by Sinead Ward. This insightful profile was written before Damien broke internationally with the release of his debut album 'O'. This profile continues to attract hundreds of visits every month, it being linked to from Damien Rice's Wikipedia page.