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.
Saturday night at Barbes the room was packed. Once Les Chauds Lapins began their set, it was literally impossible to get inside to see them playing their pillowy, bittersweet original arrangements of jazzy French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. Like Les Sans Culottes, Les Chauds Lapins (literally, “The Hot Rabbits,” 30s French slang for “hot to trot”) occupy a significant slice of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Over the years, hotshot guitarist/singer Meg Reichardt’s French accent has gotten pretty good. Co-leader Kurt Hoffmann distinguishes himself with his meticulously witty new arrangements as well as his agile clarinet playing. But in this band, both musicians play banjo ukes on most of the songs, this time backed by a swoony string section with bass, cello and viola. So these new versions are considerably different from the original piano-and-orchestra or musette-style recordings.
Les Chauds Lapins further distinguish themselves by performing a lot of relatively obscure material, not just the best-known hits by Piaf, Charles Trenet and so forth. The chirpy sound of the two ukes enhances the songs’ droll, deadpan wit: both Hoffman and Reichardt have a thing for bouncy romantic ballads about affairs that start out looking just grand but by the second verse or so have gone straight to hell. And Hoffman had the strings punching and diving and dancing with a verve to match the songs’ lyrics.
They opened with Vous Avez L’Eclat de la Rose (a free download), about a girl who smells like jasmine but may not be so sweet after all. A little later on they did one of their big crowd-pleasers, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son): he’s in love with a circus freak, but if that doesn’t work out he’s always got a gig waiting for him playing accordion at a relative’s country whorehouse. Reichardt sang another surreal number from the point of view of a girl who gets trashed beyond belief early in the evening, hooks up in the bushes with some random guy and then starts to lose her buzz, realizing that she might have made a mistake. But, what the hell: “Let’s dance,” she tells him as she straightens her dress. Hoffman’s bubbly, precise clarinet added a cheery dixieland flavor; Reichardt, who’s a mean blues player, showed off her increasingly impressive jazz chops on one of the songs midway through the set. A lot of the material this time out was relatively new, at least for them, one of the most interesting numbers being a vocal version of Django Reinhardt’s Swing 33.
And most everybody listened through all the puns, and the innuendo, and the double entendres. OK, there was one gentrifier boy, or maybe not a boy, whatev, in the back of the room, hell-bent on impressing everyone within earshot with how blithe and fey he was, and he WOULDN’T SHUT UP. But nobody paid him any mind. People like that don’t usually go to Barbes anyway. Les Chauds Lapins will be there again on Valentine’s Day at 8.
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.