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.
Trumpeter Pam Fleming‘s Dead Zombie Band are the inventors and possible sole practitioners of a relatively new and incredibly fun style of music: Halloween jazz. Fleming, who’s played with everybody from Natalie Merchant to roots reggae legend Burning Spear, brings her signature eclecticism to the band’s album Rise and Dance, streaming at cdbaby. Leading an all-star cast of New York talent, she’s playing the band’s annual Fort Greene Halloween dance party starting at around 6 PM this Saturday on Waverly Avenue between between Willoughby and DeKalb Avenues. Take the C train to Clinton-Washington.
The band slowly rises, as if from the grave, as the album gets underway, Fleming’s somber trumpet leading the funeral procession. And then they’re off on a wry reggae pulse, Tine Kindemann’s singing saw flickering in the background. Fleming’s fiendishly fun vocals are the icing on this orange-and-black cake. Fleming’s trumpet, Karen Waltuch’s viola, Jenny Hill’s tenor sax and Buford O’Sullivan’s trombone all have chromatically delicious fun. It’s a lot more Black Ark noir than it is Scooby Doo.
Zombie Drag is a slow, muted, misterioso carnival theme: the way Fleming slowly marches the horn chart out of the mist, then back and forth, is Gil Evans-class inventive. Pianist Rachelle Garniez goes for icy Ran Blake noir on The Bell behind Fleming’s whispery, ghoulish recitation. Then Garniez – who’s also playing Barbes at 8 on Nov 5 – takes over on the similarly crepuscular Two Lovers and winds it up with a gorgously ghostly improvisation that dies on the vine far to soon.
The narrative gets very, very ghostly for a bit, Fleming’s ominous intonement backed by Ursel Schlicht brushing the piano strings, a “cackle cocktail party” and then the band goes up into Satan Is Waitin’, a mashup of saloon blues, Danny Elfman soundttrack shenanigans, jajouka (dig Jessica Lurie’s alto sax solo!), Jimmy Smith (that’s Adam Klipple on organ) and oldschool soul. After that, there’s some storytelling – imagine a Dr. Seuss Halloween tale set to Hollywood Hills noir boudoir soul.
Klipple’s droll roller-rink organ anchors some pretty joyous solos from tenor saxophonist Lily White, Hill (on baritone now), and Martha Hyde on alto throughout the reggae-soul number Rise and Dance – hey, if you were a zombie, you’d be pretty psyched to be getting out of the cold ground at last. Forget anything you’ve heard before: this is the real Monster Mash.
Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.
Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.
As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.
And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.
But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.
Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.
By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.
And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning how much fun the quadruple bill – yup, four bands – at Freddy’s was on Saturday night. The music started at around 8 and ended some time in the wee hours – it was that kind of night, with tunes to match. The Roulette Sisters were first. These four badass players – resonator guitarist Mamie Minch, electric guitarist Meg Reichardt, washboard player Megan Burleyson and violist Karen Waltuch – have a great new album out (recently reviewed here) and as usual, had come to conquer. Their unusually early hour onstage was a warmup of sorts for a gig later at some costume ball (Meg already had her lion tamer costume ready to go). As usual, the set was a trip to a speakeasy of the mind circa 1930. Meg sang the cheery swing tune I’ll Take the South and the Cowboy Boogie, a funny mashup of oldtime blues and hillbilly music. When she got to the line “that cat was raised on local weed,” the whole band couldn’t help smiling. Megan sang the charming flapper anthem Coney Island Washboard and a nonchalantly innuendo-packed version of Bessie Smith’s Sugar in My Bowl. The whole crew sang an Al Duvall song which attempts to answer the question that if you’re shagging in the woods and nobody sees it, did you really get laid? Other songs included Your Biscuits Are Tall Enough for Me as well as a thinly veiled ode to masturbation and a lament told from the point of view of a woman whose man’s performance has been wiped out by Jamaica ginger (a deadly patent medicine that was sort of the 1920s equivalent of Prozac).
The Larch were next. The back room at the new Freddy’s isn’t as conducive to electric sounds as the old downstairs room was, but they managed. Lots of new songs in their set, which makes sense since they’ve got a new album coming out this year. With Liza Garelik Roure’s swooping, fluid organ lines anchoring her husband Ian’s razorwire guitar solos, they sounded like Squeeze circa 1980, when they were still Kool for Kats and rocking hard. Some of the songs – particularly one that might have been called Midweek Nebula – had a psychedelic edge, including one in tricky 9/4 time.
There were two more acts. Multi-instrumentalist Dave Wechsler is best known for his work with historically-infused chamber-rock band Pinataland, but his own solo work – which he plays and records as Tyranny of Dave – is just as interesting, and historically-inspired. Playing solo on acoustic guitar, with electrifying backing vocals a couple of numbers by oldtimey siren Robin Aigner, he ran through a set of mostly new material. Right about here, the memory gets fuzzy: moderate tempos, warmly melodic tunes, thoughtful lyrics and the occasional bright harmony dominated his hour onstage. The Magpie were next. This group is Dave Benjoya’s latest adventure in world music and they’re as good as they are eclectic, which is a lot. With guitars, accordion, bass and percussion, they swayed and bounced through a bracing mix of latin, gypsy and klezmer tunes, a couple of apprehensively charming Belgian barroom musettes and an English folk song. By the time they wrapped up their set, it was after midnight, but a crowd of A-list Brooklyn musicians stuck around and took it all in. Just a random night in a good Brooklyn bar – not something you typically find where the blight of gentrification has completely taken over, but reason to stay optimistic about music in this town.
Violinist Todd Reynolds is a founding member of Ethel, possibly the world’s most unpredictable string quartet. His expansive new solo album Outerborough, a double-disc set released on Innova, is virtually all solo violin, produced to the nth degree with dizzying layers of effects. A lot of this is psychedelic. There are occasional dark or even harrowing passages, but most of this is fun – disabuse yourself of any preconception that the avant garde is necessarily stuffy or pretentious. The first of the two discs here, the “inside,” comprises Reynolds originals performed via the Lemur GuitarBot, an effects processor that ably facilitates Reynolds’ one-man orchestra. Its high point, in fact the high point of the album, is the hauntingly otherworldly, cinematic title track with its series of tritone motifs, eventually warming up over a hi-tech bounce which the violin eventually hangs out to dry all by itself as the piece concludes. The sad, brooding, aptly titled End of Day is also absolutely gorgeous.
The rest of the originals are more lively. The opening cut, essentially a trip-hop tune, is an adventure theme with David Gilmour-esque angst balanced against a playful dance. The Indian-flavored second cut sets a jaunty pizzicato melody against a drone, shifting to a Dexys Midnight Runners type tune that builds to an interestingly exploratory crescendo, and then shifts back again. There are also a handful of hypnotic, loop-based compositions, a couple with austere sostenuto lines overhead, another featuring some woozy Dr. Dre tonalities.
The “outside” disc represents an A-list of avant-garde composers. Phil Kline’s A Needle Pulling Fred, another trip-hop number, contrasts majestically sailing melody with motorik rhythms. Michael Gordon’s Tree-Oh sets an echoey fugue to a staggered dance beat; Paul de Jong’s Inward Bound (with the composer on cello) is sort of Kraftwerk-meets-the-avant. A mash-up with an uncredited recording of the blues classic Crossroads, Michael Lowenstern’s composition serves as a launching pad for Reynolds’ gritty blues playing, evocative of Karen Waltuch’s work with the Roulette Sisters. …And the Sky Was Still There, by David T. Little illustrates Army veteran Amber Ferenz’s chilling narrative of her would-be transformation into a killing machine – until she had an epiphany, which is where the music picks up. The strongest of the compositions on the second disc is Ken Thomson’s Storm Drain, with its plaintive Middle Eastern allusions and ominous bass clarinet courtesy of the composer himself. There’s also a blippily hypnotic piece by Nick Zammuto and a cinematically crescendoing one from Paula Matthusen. Many flavors and a characteristically eclectic, genre-busting blend of styles, which is just what you’d expect from a member of Ethel (Reynolds has since left the group).
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.
Oldtimey harmony hellraisers the Roulette Sisters burst on the New York scene in the mid-zeros. They were one of the first groups to have a Saturday night residency at Barbes, put out a wickedly fun debut album, Nerve Medicine (which made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list), and then went their separate ways for awhile. Resonator guitarist Mamie Minch made a career for herself as a solo artist, releasing her defiant solo debut, Razorburn Blues in 2008. Meanwhile, electric guitarist/banjo uke player Meg Reichardt joined forces with Kurt Hoffman in charming French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins, washboard player Megan Burleyson kept busy in New York’s “hottest washboard swing ensemble,” the 4th St. Nite Owls, and violist Karen Waltuch maintained a career as a player and composer encompassing everything from klezmer, to country, to the avant garde. They reunited last year, and they’ve got a new album out, Introducing the Roulette Sisters, whose title makes sense in that this is Waltuch’s first full-length recording with the group
They open and close the album with lushly beautiful harmony-driven songs; a viscerally plaintive cover of A. P. Carter’s The Birds Were Singing of You, with a poignant guitar solo from Reichardt and lead vocal from Minch, and at the end a winsome version of Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart by Papa Charlie Jackson. Likewise, they take It Could’ve Been Sweet, by Leon Chase – of hilarious cowpunk band Uncle Leon & the Alibis – rearranging it into a shuffle that becomes a sad waltz on the chorus: “I’m not looking for a twenty year loan, just a little something extra to get me home.” The rest of the album is the innuendo-laden fun stuff that they’re best known for.
Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me, the Bo Carter novelty song, gets a female perspective. A Reichardt original, In the Shade of the Magnolia Tree, is an outdoor boudoir tune in a balmy Carolina setting. Burleyson does a pitch-perfect hot 20s bluesmama evocation on Hattie Hart’s I Let My Daddy Do That – as in getting her ashes hauled, i.e. opening the door to the coal chute. As funny as the vocals are, it’s one of the most musically rich moments here, a lush interweave of acoustic and electric guitars and viola – Waltuch’s pizzicato solo, like a koto playing the blues, is as much a showstopper as it is in concert.
Their version of Do Da Lee Do takes an old western swing standard and adds lyrics out of Reichardt’s collection of bawdy songs from over the years: “Roses are red and ready for plucking, I’m sixteen and ready for high school,” for example. Scuddling, by Frankie Half Pint Jaxon, is a “dance” you can do by yourself – which you could also do with someone else if they were willing – but definitely not in public. And Al Duvall’s Jake Leg Blues explores the legacy of Jamaica ginger, a Prohibition-era concoction whose side effects produced a whole lot of Eves without Adams: “In the garden I hang my head, I’m grabbing for apples now the snake is dead,” Minch snorts authoritatively. The album comes in a charming, old-fashioned sleeve handmade on an antique letterpress. There are hundreds of bands who mine the treasures of oldtime blues and Americana, few with the fearlessness and sass of the Roulette Sisters. As fun as it is to see them in small clubs in Brooklyn, where they really deserve to be is Lincoln Center, doing their vastly more entertaining version of a great American songbook.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #840:
The Roulette Sisters – Nerve Medicine
Arguably the finest band to spring from the Blu Lounge scene in Williamsburg, the Roulette Sisters first combined the fearless talents and soaring oldtime harmonies of resonator guitarist Mamie Minch, electric lead player Meg Reichardt (also of les Chauds Lapins) and washboard player Megan Burleyson. Their lone album to date, from 2005, is a slinky retro feast of delta blues, hokum and sultry country swing. Innuendo has always been their drawing card, and this has plenty of it, whether Bessie Smith’s Sugar in My Bowl, the hilariously Freudian Keep on Churnin’ (“Keep on churnin’ til the butter flows/Wipe off the paddle and churn some more”) and I’m Waiting, sung with characteristically rustic, austere charm by Burleyson. There’s also the defiant, revenge-fueled Black Eye Blues and Black Dog Blues, the irresistibly charming Coney Island Washboard, a similarly antique take of Bei Mi Bist du Schoen and Reichardt’s wistful, bucolic No Particular Thing. The band brought in viola player/composer Karen Waltuch before breaking up in 2007. Happily reunited recently, they’re playing their annual Halloween show on Oct 30 at 10 at Barbes.
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]
A deliriously fun, hot, sweaty show. It was late on a Monday night, but the place was packed. The crowd sang along, and when they weren’t singing, they were laughing at all the subtle and not-so-subtle double entendres the band was harmonizing on. Because (other than great musicianship and gorgeous 4-part harmonies and stone cold authentic acoustic blues playing), sex is what the Roulette Sisters are all about. Lou Pearlman couldn’t have come up with a better marketing concept: four attractive women singing innuendo-laden oldtime music – an impressively wide-ranging mix of blues, country and 1920s/30s pop – playing their own instruments, singing beautifully and writing a lot of their own material. They opened with Coney Island Washboard: guitarist Mamie Minch explained how it was an instrumental from the early 20s given lyrics by a popular pop group, the Mills Brothers, about ten years later. Lead guitarist Meg Reichardt (also of les Chauds Lapins) added a typically suggestive postscript, telling the audience about a co-worker who was walking around the office all day wearing something akin to the “brand new suit of easy breezes” in the song’s chorus. A little later they did another original, inspired by the Carter Family, that wouldn’t be out of place on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
Minch had just asked her bandmates whether they should do a pretty song or a dirty song when she was suddenly interrupted. “Fuck!” She’d just gotten a jolt of electric current from her mic. Her bandmates grinned at each other, and the question was answered: they launched into the hokum blues classic Keep on Churnin’:
Keep on churning til the butter comes
Keep on pumping, let the butter flow
Wipe off the paddle and churn some more
The crowd roared for another in the same vein, so they obliged, with heir most popular original, Hottest Girl in Town. The song is a hoot: each band member takes a verse laden with Freudian imagery, some verging on X-rated, detailing how their boyfriends like to please them. Viola player Karen Waltuch, who played incisive, somewhat dark solos all night long, took her most intricate one of the evening after her verse and the crowd loved it.
Then was Reichardt’s turn to bring the house down with an outtake from Dolly Parton’s first album, a deliciously righteous tale of a jilted woman wanting to get even with the woman who married her man: “I feel like tying dynamite to her side of the car.” After that, Minch delivered an especially sly version of the Bessie Smith hit Sugar in My Bowl.
The excellent Al Duvall – who’s quite the master of thinly veiled dirty lyrics himself – accompanied them on banjo on their last four songs, ending with a brand-new composition about a sheet music plugger (plugger: get it?) which Minch sang off a lyric sheet. She began the song as a talking blues but by the end she’d written a vocal melody and had it down cold.
You heard it here first: this band is going places. Our predecessor e-zine picked their cd Nerve Medicine as best debut album of 2006. Good to see that prediction come true, with this fantastic band getting some real momentum.