Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Les Chauds Lapins at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 6/19/09

It was both impressive and heartwarming to see how this band has grown. Les Chauds Lapins means “hot rabbits,” literally – in the vernacular, the connotation is a guy who’s hot to trot. Their shtick is reviving old French chansons from the thirties and forties, predominantly from the Charles Trenet catalog. A Gallic icon, Trenet was flamboyant, frequently annoying but also very witty. His repertoire ranged from the odious Douce France (sort of the French equivalent of God Bless America) to dozens of vastly more entertaining and clever songs with a jazzy, theatrical feel, sometimes going completely over the edge into camp. Les Chauds Lapins play them with a knowing, tongue-in-cheek appreciation: former Ordinaires frontman Kurt Hoffman on banjo ukelele or clarinet; ex-Roulette Sister Meg Reichardt on guitar and banjo uke, sharing vocals with Hoffman; Andy Cotton on upright bass, Garo Yellin on cello and a ringer on violin adding a gypsy flair to several selections. The result was as lush and romantic as it was funny: Les Chauds Lapins prefer songs with multiple layers of meaning and they brought all of them out.

What was most impressive is how much their repertoire has expanded since their first album (which made the top 20 on our Best Albums of 2007 list). This time they opened with the coyly swinging Il M’a Vue Nue (He Saw Me Naked), Reichardt managing to hold herself back from completely hamming it up. The high point of their first set was Je Crache Dans L’Eau (I Spit Into the Water), a character study chronicling one unique and peculiar response to rejection, taking it out on fish in the river and marveling at all the ripples a mouthful of saliva can create. The band clearly had a great time with an even more bizarre chronicle, le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son) when it came to the bridge, which is a dead ringer for the Pachelbel Canon. The song was written forty years before Oprah rediscovered it and put the Canon back in the canon (ouch – sorry) – was this a case of reinventing the wheel or a very clever case of theft? Appropriate something previously unknown and you have a perfect crime.   

As a guitarist, Reichardt just gets more interesting, more incisive. Having honed her blues chops in the Roulette Sisters, she’s worked up her jazz side in this project and where she used to comp chords on banjo uke on most of the songs, she’s playing guitar with the same clever incisiveness and love for the low registers that’s so apparent when she plays blues. It was also nice to see Hoffman cut loose with a fiery clarinet solo toward the end of the set – it would be good to see those chops in action more often. And it would have been fun to stick around for a whole second set , but there were drunk people to watch over, the price of some pretty hard pregaming.

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June 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Les Chauds Lapins at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 10/20/07

[editor’s note: the absence of French accent marks here is due to the computer, not us]

A lush, swinging, passionate performance of some very smart, funny, unabashedly romantic songs from 1930s and 1940s France, mostly. That’s les Chauds Lapins’ shtick: they’re a bunch of Americans playing stuff a continent and a few generations removed, and they do it well. They have a viola and a cello, and when the string section is playing at full steam, they will completely sweep you away as they did tonight. They opened with J’ai Danse avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the first cut on their excellent debut album Parlez-Moi d’Amour (Talk to Me About Love). Meg Reichardt (who also plays in the Roulette Sisters) was poised and assured on lead vocals, delivering it with her trademark breathy style, in an impressively good French accent. Then banjo uke/clarinet player Kurt Hoffman took a turn at the mic with the witty Swing Troubadour. It’s told from the point of view of a guy in an upstairs apartment listening to a guy downstairs serenading the girl who used to live there. But she’s not there anymore:

Comme toi je n’ai plus rien
Mais comme toi je chante pour mon bien

“Like you, I got nothing, but just like you I’m singing to myself too,” says the new tenant matter-of-factly. There were enough Francophones in the audience – this was Barbes, after all – to pick up on this and the innumerable other jokes and double entendres that littered the songs they played tonight. On the sardonic Presque Oui (Almost Yes), Hoffman and Reichardt traded off on vocals fetchingly, with an effervescent clarinet solo from Hoffman on the intro. Reichardt wowed the crowd with a banjo uke solo on the bouncy J’ai Connu de Vous (I Knew You), sung by Hoffman, about a guy reminiscing about all the horrible things his girlfriend did to him. Still he has fond memories of her. The album’s title track is a swoony number in 6/8, and Reichardt gave it “tant d’amour [so much love].” On a new number for them, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son), Hoffman mined the song’s completely over-the-top humor for everything it was worth. After the gently swaying verse, which sounds suspiciously like the Pachelbel Canon, there’s a campy vaudeville chorus: the narrator can’t afford anything for his girlfriend, a circus headless woman. However, he has been offered a job in a relative’s whorehouse playing accordion. The strings were going full blast on this one, and they were gorgeous.

They followed that with Le Barque d’Yves (Yves’ Boat), a cautionary, 6/8 ballad about dating a sailor where on the last chorus he ends up inviting her to join him in his watery grave. Then Hoffman sang Quand J’Etais Petit, about someone who’s had a crush on a girl since she was a child. But “on n’est plus petit [we’re not kids anymore].” Reichardt pulled out all the passion stops for Si Tu M’Aimes, another cut from the new album, followed by Hoffman’s take on Parlez-Moi d’Autre Chose [Let’s Talk About Something Else, i.e. anything but love]. He forgot the words for a half a verse, but les Chauds Lapins owned the audience tonight, and they forgave him. And they probably forgot all about it after a particularly choice upright bass solo from their 4-string player Andy Cotton. They ended the set with the somewhat silly, coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked). The place was packed, but the sound was terrific and the crowd was pretty rapt til they’d finished playing. Nobody cried – people are frequently moved to tears at les Chauds Lapins shows – but a good time was clearly had by all, including a group of Quebecois nodding approvingly. If you can’t wait til the Moonlighters come around next time or you don’t have $200 to cough up for Al Green at B.B. King’s – assuming he ever comes back – les Chauds Lapins will do just fine.

October 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Les Chauds Lapins – Parlez-Moi d’Amour

The most romantic album of the year, and, so far, the best debut as well. Questions of authenticity always arise when bands mine a foreign genre, so the stakes were pretty high for this bunch of New Yorkers playing innuendo-laden, jazzy French pop songs from the 30s and 40s. But their love of the music transcends any difficulty they might have had with the language. A purist – and the French are notorious purists – might fault them for the occasional lapse of accent, but they absolutely nail the style. This is lush, harmony-driven, gorgeously orchestrated, swoony bedroom music. At les Chauds Lapins’ cd release show earlier this summer, people were in tears, and it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t even speak French.

The nucleus of this band is Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who sings and plays banjo ukelele here along with her sparring partner (or, better put, dance partner) Kurt Hoffman, former leader of rustic New York art-rockers the Ordinaires. Accompanied by another Roulette sister, Karen Waltuch on viola along with Garo Yellin on cello, Andy Cotton on upright bass and Frank London adding some balmy trumpet to several of the songs, the band wrings every ounce of subtlety and nuance out of both lyrics and melodies. As in Reichardt’s other band, most of the songs here are about sex: “les chauds lapins” translates roughly to “the horny bastards.” With their breathy yet restrained deliveries, Reichardt and Hoffman are the perfect combination to sing this stuff.

French songwriters have always been held to a higher standard than their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: from Charles Trenet (many of whose songs Les Chauds Lapins cover here) to Didier Barbelivien, they’ve virtually always been much more artisanal. Double entendres, historical and mythological references, social commentary and great wit abound in a vastly higher proportion of the French top 40 than what Americans have been subjected to over the last century. Les Chauds Lapins revel in this: Reichardt and Hoffman articulate the lyrics to these songs with exceptional clarity, so that any French-speaking person can understand them (in case this might seem a sine qua non, try making sense of French hip-hop if you aren’t up on the latest argot).

There are thirteen lucky tracks on this album, and you might well get lucky if you use them the right way, i.e. late at night with someone you’re looking to se coucher avec. The Edith Piaf hit J’ai Danse Avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked), the rueful Swing Troubadour (written as anyone who could afford to flee Paris had already fled, days ahead of the Nazi invasion) and the album’s sly, seductive title track are all performed with wit, charm and a barely restrained delight: it’s obvious that this band had a great time making the album. Fans of this obscure (stateside, anyway) subgenre will not be disappointed and newcomers will be completely seduced. You don’t have to speak French, but it helps. Quel plaisir to see such good musicians resurrecting such deserving songs. Terrific album: five baguettes with fresh camembert, tomato and a bottle of beaujolais nouveau. As a bonus, the album is also available on vinyl, complete with lyric sheet and ukelele chord charts for the album’s fifth track, Mon Reve C’Etait Vous.

[editor’s note – apologies to all you Academie Francaise types for the missing accent marks – attempting to use anything more complicated than plain text on a WordPress page, at least in 2007, is flirting with disaster]

September 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nightcrawling 5/11/07: Basement, Lenny Molotov, Les Chauds Lapins, Moisturizer

The evening began at with happy hour at Lakeside, a reliably good way to kick off the night. The scheduled band had apparently cancelled and had been replaced by a country/rock outfit called Basement who took the stage at 8 instead of the usual 11 PM. They were excellent: two guitars, rhythm section and keyboardist who played mainly organ fills, from what little we got to hear. The lead player, on Telecaster, seems to be more of a rock guy, but he still gave them a shot of adrenaline. The flyer in the club window described them as rockers with a lot of bluegrass and Irish influences: the latter was in evidence, not the former. But there’s only so much you can tell from the first fifteen minutes of a band’s set. They’re definitely worth checking out.

Next stop was Sidewalk, where by the time we arrived Lenny Molotov was already into his 45-minute set. Funny how times change: ten years ago, this place was Dork Central and now it’s one of the more prestigious places to play. Same shitty sound, but it’s become a sane alternative to the Living Room, cheaper and usually pretty much tourist-free. And apparently musicians who want to play there no longer have to subject themselves to waiting ten hours for a 3-song audition in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, subject to the ridicule of the Woody Allen wannabe who’s been booking the place forever.

Molotov (who also fronts the excellent delta blues outfit Elgin Movement, and plays mean lead guitar for Randi Russo) was without his usual collection of effects pedals, so with only the club’s weak PA to amplify his acoustic guitar, the brilliance of his spiky, fingerpicked melodies wasn’t always readily apparent. He played a lot of new material, accompanied by his Elgin Movement sidekick, Jake Engel, on chromatic harp and Karl Meyer on violin. Engel was in a particularly buoyant mood and got a lot of response out of the surprisingly sparse crowd. Molotov’s original songs typically set darkly witty, brilliantly literate, contemporary lyrics to oldschool delta blues melodies, and tonight he played one of his best originals in that vein, possibly titled Hard to be an Outlaw. It’s a bleak, black-humor-driven chronicle about a kid from somewhere sketchy in Brooklyn who a couple of years ago went out to buy some weed, may or may not have been entrapped into starting a fatal shootout with an undercover cop, and ended up blowing his brains out later that night in an ex-girlfriend’s project apartment. Later, Molotov told the audience that he was going to do a number he’d never before played live, and that he’d just found out why everyone else plays it. After working out who was going to take a solo and when, he launched into a fascinating open-tuned arrangement of St. James Infirmary Blues, barely recognizable save for the lyrics. He closed the set with a new original song, Luxury Blues: “You say you don’t have a woman/Well try having two.”

We cut out moments after he left the stage and went east to Banjo Jim’s for about 40 minutes where Les Chauds Lapins were playing. They’re Kurt Hoffmann on banjo uke and clarinet, trading vocals with Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who alternated between guitar and banjo uke as well. They were backed by a rhythm section (bringing in a new upright bass player for the second set, as their first had to leave for another gig), along with violin, cello and Frank London blowing exquisitely balmy muted trumpet on a couple of numbers. Translated literally from the French, Les Chauds Lapins means “the hot rabbits.” What it actually means is “hot mamas.” It can also mean “pains in the ass.” They play vintage French pop from the 20s and 30s, Hoffmann’s urbane tenor playing off of Reichardt’s breathy, sensual vocals. Like the Roulette Sisters, Les Chauds Lapins’ specialty is sex songs, laden with double entendres, sung more or less sans accent Americain, in the language of love. Strange that the place wasn’t packed – sex sells, as everybody knows – plus, the band was playing two whole sets. Their musicianship is superb, and the songs are well-chosen. For decades, in fact until very recently, French assembly-line songwriters from Charles Trenet to Didier Barbelivien had little in common with their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: in France, even pop songwriting is an art form. Clever lyrics, complex song structures and real artistic achievement abound. Even the much-maligned varietes folk-pop from the 70s frequently has great lyrics. Hoffmann and Reichardt mine the archive for every innuendo they can whisper. Their new cd, which they were hawking tonight, promises to be excellent. But we were off to Luna to see Moisturizer.

The new Luna Lounge (across the street from Black Betty, just off the corner of Metropolitan and Havemeyer in Williamsburg) tries very hard to be likeable and succeeds on most counts. Sizewise, it’s about the same as Bowery Ballroom without the balcony: it’s obvious that the walls and ceiling have been expertly tricked out for sound. The staff and bartenders are uncommonly nice and the drinks aren’t outrageously overpriced. Moisturizer is strictly an instrumental band, so getting the sound right for them should have been a breeze. It wasn’t. Baritone sax player Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and their drummer fought magnificently for almost 40 minutes, trying in vain to cut through a relentless, drum-heavy morass of sonic sludge. One has to wonder: was the sound guy stoned? Did they bring in a sub because the regular guy wanted a night off and there was a “local” band playing?

Despite the dodgy sonics, Moisturizer won over the crowd: what a surprise. They’re the closest thing we have these days to the Funk Brothers, who were Motown Records’ studio band throughout the 60s and subject of the terrific documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Moisturizer’s irresistibly fun, danceable tunes had everyone at least swaying in their seats. They gets a lot of ESG comparisons, and that’s not a stretch, although Moisturizer is (pardon the pun) more fluid and a lot more melodic. Frontwoman Moist Paula, who has played with everybody and also has a fine, jazzy side project called Secretary, draws on a lot of influences, from Lonnie Smith go-go to Motown to hip-hop. But her sound is unique and instantly recognizable, always coming back to the melody even if she’s known to take a noisy excursion to the outer reaches of jazz from time to time. Bassist Moist Gina is one of the best in the business, one of the hardest hitters around, a terrifically melodic, imaginative, fluid player (there’s that word again) whose flying runs up and down the scale are adrenalizing to say the least. They’ve been through a succession of drummers lately, but the latest one is working out well.

Moist Paula was the only band member who had a mic, and she didn’t talk to the crowd much: maybe they were trying to pack as much material into the allotted time as they could, an admirable goal if that’s what they were shooting for. Moisturizer has a lot of material (dozens and dozens of songs), all of them “true stories,” as Moist Paula will proudly announce from time to time, and because they don’t announce them frequently it’s hard to tell what they’re called. The Satie-esque, surreal wit of the titles carries over from the title to the music. Among the tunes they played tonight were an uncharacteristically haunting, gorgeously melancholy number about a child who was reunited with his/her mother in the wake of the Indonesia tsunami, as well as the current Moisturizer crowd-pleaser Enactuate Our Love which features a blistering, breathtaking solo from Moist Gina at the end of the song. By then she’d turned off the flange she’d been using through most of the set, giving her propulsive lines a watery, 80s tone.

Everyone’s entitled to an off night: it’s just too bad Moisturizer and their fans came out on the wrong end of this one. Maybe it’s just growing pains at a new venue: by all other standards, the new Luna is actually a welcome addition to Williamsburg. Can you remember the last time you could say that about anything new in the neighborhood? I can’t.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments