Je ne Sais quoi: We arrived in Paris on a cool Friday night in December, accompanying an American rock band on their first European tour. We got there, appropriately, at the stroke of midnight, and zoomed past narrow girls, red lights, the river. When we arrived at the apartment of the booking agent, we found she had a table set for us at the top of her wooden staircase. There were figs and pate for hors doeuvres, and fondue as a main course. All I could think was, Cest magnifique! Or, as we say in California, This rules!
On Saturday night, the opening act was a French band called Tetard, billed as chanson rock acoustique. The gig was on La Guinguette Pirate, a rickety ship floating on the Seine. The thick-browed lead singer was all hunched shoulders and growled Rs, a mix of Jacques Brel and Calvin Johnson. His delicate female accompanist pushed back her hair with a black headband, wore a gingham blouse and played airy xylophone lines. She cooed when he belched. At the end of the night, I saw the front man, David, gazing wistfully across the river. I approached him to say my goodbyes, but when I tapped his shoulder, he turned his head slowly, drunkenly. He wasnt gazing over the Seine, hed been pissing into it.
Though I resisted the temptation to buy a copy of the new compilation Cuisine Non-Stop on the spot -- perhaps at the Virgin Megastore in the Louvres basement -- I picked it up promptly when I got back to the States. I needed to see if there were other contemporary French musicians with such a healthy disrespect for their culture. Compiled by Luaka Bop proprietor and former Talking Head David Byrne, the album serves as an introduction to a world where pop music is made with accordions, head-bobbing acoustic guitars, yearningly romantic vocalists and farting brass bands. (Evidently, the French have an abiding love for the tuba.)
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Thankfully, these groups have given themselves license to ransack French pop history and give it a modern remix. If you have any familiarity with the chanson tradition, a few of the elements will strike you as familiar. With their lingering drama, the vocalists for Tetes Raides and Ignatius are Jacques Brel--like; the singers for Arthur H and Java bring to mind the louche grooves of Serge Gainsbourg. There are jaunty waltzes that swing like the soundtrack to a wine bar, and kooky funk that bears a striking similarity to straight-out kitsch. The liner notes point out that French people in search of native funkiness look back to the yeyes, their own form of 60s bubblegum pop, but all I could think of were go-go dancers in short skirts, and reruns of Laugh-In with a few more growls and nasal sounds thrown in for effect.
The exciting and new thing on Cuisine Non-Stop is the way the artists seem to have opened up their ears to the world. Dupains Fem Ren gallops like an Arabian horse; Louise Attaques Du Nord au Sud unfolds like a slow afternoon in a hookah bar where all the pipes have been spiked with hash; LoJo undergird their songs with a throb and pop that will be familiar to recent Afrobeat converts. Dance acts like Daft Punk, Air and Cassius have all had modest stateside hits in recent years, and though most of the groups on Cuisine Non-Stop are far more regional in origin and ambition, electronic musics emphasis on texture seems a cardinal virtue. Arthur H and Java pull the audio equivalent of judo; the vocals are closely miked and the instrumentation is pushed far back in the mix, yet its twinkling accents remain in your face. (Imagine velvet wallpaper embedded with 3-inch rhinestones.) Not all the texture has its roots in electronic music, though. Mickey 3Ds shadowy contribution, Goodbye Green Day, is all whispers and tape hiss, casting them as Frances answer to Sebadoh or Pavement.
Theres nothing like a well-curated compilation to introduce yourself to the music of the world, but too often these affairs leave one with a hoodwinked feeling, like foreignness alone has been used to convince you of the merits of African rap, Ethiopian funk or the work of a half-dozen geriatric Cubans. Thats not the case with Cuisine Non-Stop. This record could do for the French what Luaka Bops Beleza Tropical series did for Brazilians like Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze and Os Mutantes in the 1990s, which is to say, not that much from a Billboard point of view, but quite a lot for the American hipster consciousness. Heres hoping the seeds theyre planting take root and bloom into fleurs-de-lis in the hearts of record clerks everywhere. All it will take is a little butter and a good red wine priced cheap as a six-pack.
VARIOUS ARTISTS | Cuisine Non-Stop: Introduction to the French Nouvelle Generation | (Luaka Bop)