Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.
The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony. if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.
The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.
As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.
Les Chauds Lapins are one of New York’s most refreshingly original, interesting bands. They specialize in cleverly lyrical, sometimes obscure, innuendo-filled, sweepingly romantic French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. It’s been a delight watching them evolve and blossom over the past four years, which is not to say that they weren’t already in bloom when they released their 2007 debut Parlez-Moi D’amour (Let’s Talk about Love), which made our Best Albums list that year. Four years later, their new one Amourettes (Flirtations) captures them pursuing a vein that’s both more sensual and more diverse. Frontwoman/uke player/guitarist Meg Reichardt’s voice has taken on even more of a lush sultriness than she brings to her other group, coy oldtime Americana hellraisers the Roulette Sisters. Her French accent has also gotten stronger; her partner in song, talented multi-instrumentalist Kurt Hoffman’s, has not. But he gets all the funniest songs here and makes the most of them, absolutely deadpan: if this was acting, he’d be Marcel Marceau.
The opening track, Nouveau Bonheur sets the stage for what’s to follow, the distant reverb of Frank London’s muted trumpet followed by Karen Waltuch’s viola and then Reichardt’s own nimble electric guitar against the balmy wash of strings. Cette Nuit-Là (That One Night), ultimately a sad song about waking up alone, is a showcase for Reichardt’s pillowy Catherine Deneuvesque delivery. Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son), a playfully deadpan, carnivalesque Charles Trenet tune, begins with an intro nicked from the Pachelbel Canon. Hoffman takes the lead vocals with sweet chirpy harmonies from Reichardt – born into a family of freaks, he hasn’t got a prayer, and eventually runs off to play accordion in a whorehouse.
Based on the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli classic, Je T’aime’s lyrics don’t add anything, but Reichardt sings it fetchingly with some deliciously bluesy viola from Waltuch, and another soulful guitar solo. A study in suspense, Presque Oui (Almost Yes – check out the cool surreal video) is enhanced by Hoffman’s clarinet and a tightlipped passing of the baton from Andy Cotton’s bass, to the uke, to the strings as they rise. A straight-up love song, Vous Avez L’éclat de la Rose (As Pretty As a Rose) gets an unexpected modulation and more genial muted trumpet from London. Next up is Charles Trenet’s Quand J’etais Petit, sung by Hoffman, a wry tale of a a childhood crush that may have an unexpected ending – or maybe not.
C’est Arrivé (It’s Happened) wryly follows a downward spiral from mutual attraction to mutual bliss and then less amicable moments, with some delicious tradeoffs between Hoffman’s clarinet, the strings and the bass. Voulez-Vous Danser, Madame has Hoffman following a similar theme over a gypsy jazz bounce; Si Je M’étais Couché caches longing and angst in a sweeping romantic narrative that floats on dreamy strings punctuated by a bouncy bass solo. A bracingly deadpan tale of a suicide in the making whose bitterness for the moment is satisfied by spitting on the fish in the river rather than diving in with them, Moi J’crache dans L’eau introduces a darker current, where the album unexpectedly ends, with the sad waltz, Pluie (Rain), sung by a bereaved lover. Ironically, singer Maguy Fred, who recorded the original in 1934, was murdered later that year by her boyfriend, who after sitting alone with her body for three days set fire to their apartment and then shot himself. It would make a great lyric for a song by Les Chauds Lapins. They play the cd release show for this one at the 92YTribeca at 10 PM this Friday the 25th.
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.
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]