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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Georges Brassens Comes Alive in English – An Interview with Pierre de Gaillande of Bad Reputation

One of the great songwriters of our time, Pierre de Gaillande plays in more great bands than maybe anybody else on the planet. In addition to fronting the poignantly multistylistic chamber-pop band The Snow, he’s recently resurrected his popular, fierily anthemic art-rock band, Melomane. Yet his current focus is a new project, Bad Reputation, the first American group dedicated to performing English-language versions of the songs of iconic French anarchist chansonnier Georges Brassens. In between rehearsals and the media crush of an upcoming cd release show for its debut on Barbes Records (June 12 at the Bell House), de Gaillande managed to find the time to get a few words in edgewise:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Let’s see if I can get this right: you’re American-born, French ancestry, bilingual in English and French – and speak Russian also, I believe – and according to the PR stuff I have here, your introduction to the work of the iconic French anarchist songwriter came via your professor father, as something of a literary exercise. And for that reason you weren’t particularly fond of Brassens as a kid, is that right?

Pierre de Gaillande: No. I was born in Paris, France to a French father and American mother. I was born with dual citizenship – we lived in Paris for the first seven years of my life. My first language was French, but my mother spoke English to me as a child and I could speak a little English when we moved to the states.

LCC: When did you start listening to Brassens purely for pleasure?

PDG: Brassens was always on in my house when we were growing up. It was part of the musical landscape of our home like the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Dubliners, the Kingston Trio and a multitude of other French singers. I always liked listening to Brassens. What I didn’t like was my father’s didactic and proprietary attitude towards everything French in general, and Brassens in particular. Which has changed, by the way: Brassens is a topic we definitely connect on these days.

LCC: The work of some French musical icons has insinuated itself into American culture: Piaf and Gainsbourg for example. Is there an explanation for why Brassens never caught on here, or anywhere else in the anglophone world as far as I can tell?

PDG: There are two reasons for this as far as I can tell. One is that the pleasure in Brassens is primarily lyrical. Without an understanding of the lyrics, at least half the point is gone. The other reason is that unlike Brel and Gainsbourg, Brassens never explored any new musical territory in the arrangements of his songs – he kept his arrangement to an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, his voice, and occasional lead guitar. He only used a lead guitarist live on certain television appearances, never on stage. Just an aside, Brassens’ guitarist for the last ten years of his career was Joel Favreau, who has agreed to come to New York in November to do a Brassens festival at Symphony Space, for which Bad Reputation will be the house band with a bunch of French singers. So this is an extremely proud occasion for me and a chance to come full circle.

So unless you really love this kind of folk guitar music, if you don’t speak French, there aren’t many other points of entry into Brassens’ music besides very catchy melodies and his rich voice. By contrast, Gainsbourg explored all kinds of musical territory, like rock, reggae, funk, and disco, and he pandered to an English-speaking crowd by dropping English in his lyrics constantly. Brassens just didn’t pander. You had to go to him, he wasn’t coming to you.

LCC: What is your motivation in putting out this record? It’s not like you’re riding a wave of Brassens success, or tapping into some vast cultural resonance, at least in this country…

PDG: It’s a lot of fun. And I think it is extremely culturally relevant. This country can definitely use some voices championing what Brassens stood for; a deep love of poetry, history, literary and intellectual achievement, a disdain for consumerism, fanaticism, and the sheep mentality in any form, and a morality based on humane common sense, not religion.

LCC: What would you say was the biggest challenge in translating Brassens? Contemporizing dated slang? Or attempting to maintain both the same rhyme and meter as the original French lyrics?

PDG: The biggest challenge was translating very specific French slang, and deciding when to make the meaning gibe with the original time period, 50s through the 70s, or when to make it sound current. And of course all of it had to rhyme and fit in the same number of syllables if possible. One little example: in the song Penelope the first line is “Toi l’epouse modele, le grillon du foyer.” I chose to translate that literally as “You, the cricket of the hearth; you, the ideal spouse.” As far as I know, “the cricket of the hearth” is not an expression in English, but to me it is such a graceful way of saying “housewife” that I chose to translate it literally. There were scores of decisions to make, and on many occasions I used a current English expression, sometimes I didn’t.

LCC: Brassens was kind of gangsta, he went for shock value every time. I know at least a few of his songs were banned in France. How much of that shock value were you able to maintain – or does any of that still have the capacity to shock, in the era of Fitty and L’il Wayne?

PDG: Brassens was a punk. He just didn’t care what “‘the public” thought of him. If you listen to the song The Pornographer on my cd, you’ll see I tried to leave in all the words that might get bleeped on the radio these days. Does anything shock anymore, I don’t know. What’s more shocking in Brassens is the subject matter; a 13 year old girl who tries to seduce a much older musician (Princess and the Troubadour), a nun who warms up a man’s penis because he has no arms (Don Juan), a marquise who gives a man crabs (Trumpets of Fortune and Fame) and on and on and on…

LCC: Brassens loved double entendres, and he was very good at them – as you are, in your own songwriting with the Snow and Melomane. In translating these songs, did you ever find yourself having to choose one level of meaning over another? How did you handle that?

PDG: Good question. Sometimes I had to compromise or improvise. Bear with me while I give you an example. There is a moment in Penelope where he says “Il n’y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un coeur/Qui bat la campagne et galope” which literally means, “There’s no reason here to whip a heart/Which beats a path into the fields at a gallop.” It’s actually a triple entendre. The first level of meaning is a play on words for “here’s no cause to whip a cat [fouetter un chat]” which basically means there’s no reason to freak out, you need to relax, but he changes it to “whip a heart” so that it fits with the next pun, which is “beating a path.” Now the heart is beating, and it is galloping like a horse in the fields (la campagne.) But “battre la campagne” also means to go on a war campaign. So there are three levels of meaning densely packed in to two lines.

So what I did was keep the heart beating motif, but instead of whipping a heart, I used “swinging a heart” as in “there’s not enough room in here to swing a cat.” This then connected nicely with the beating heart in the second half, “Beating a path to distant fields.” I sacrificed one expression (whipping a cat) and substituted an English one (swinging a cat). The whole project was full of these kinds of verbal gymnastics. It’s a game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

LCC: Above all – and I think this is the key to his success in France at least – Brassens is hilarious! But a lot of the humor is in the wordplay – it doesn’t translate. Literally. Or does it?

PDG: Some does, some doesn’t. I did my best to capture it. Brassens had about 200 songs in his catalogue, and some of the best ones are untranslatable, but there are many that do work, and that’s my mission. I think there are tons of hilarious moments on this CD.

LCC: The press release here says you’ve deliberately avoided trying to make rock music out of these songs, even to the extent of not utilizing drums on the album. I know that Brassens was not an enormous fan of rock, and that you’re trying to be purist about this. At the same time I can’t help thinking, this guy was pretty punk. You know, the eternal refusenik, he wouldn’t let anybody fuck with him. These songs would kick ass if you turned up the guitar, added more of a beat, brought the vocals up in the mix, don’t you think?

PDG: First off, the vocals are way up in the mix, just as they are in the original. I deliberately did not want to make a rock or “modern” version of Brassens. There is a great band in France called Brassens Not Dead that does hardcore thrash punk versions of Brassens, and they do a fantastic job, and they capture his punk spirit to a tee. There are also tons of crappy “modern versions” of Brassens in France, they are embarrassing and wrongheaded, at least to my ears. The best versions of his stick to the gypsy-jazz folk vibe that inspired him. I wanted this introduction to Brassens for English speaking people to be all about the lyrics. The music is there, and it is artfully executed and arranged by my fantastic band, but it just felt natural to stay away from the drums. The last seven albums I have made were rock albums, and once you start layering sounds and adding instruments, there’s no turning back. I needed to explore having the courage to make my voice the most prevalent sound on the album.

LCC: Can I continue playing devil’s advocate? Where do you get the idea that most Americans – who can’t even find France on a map, let alone have any awareness of who Georges Brassens is or why he might be worth discovering – would have the slightest interest in these songs? Or is there something here that might resonate with at least a cult audience?

PDG: Americans, or anyone else for that matter, can take it or leave it, it’s not up to me to make them like it. I’ve never made music with a concern for how it’s going to be received. Like all of my music, this started with me playing guitar and scribbling notes frantically, by myself in the middle of the night, completely absorbed in a fascinating pursuit. I think there are a lot of people out there who like a good melody attached to some really smart lyrics. They will enjoy this music if they want to, I can’t control that.

LCC: Your new album includes a cynical song about celebrity worship – talk about Brassens being years ahead of his time, huh?; a very funny one about being pussywhipped; a defiant, punkish one about staying true to oneself; at least one and maybe more that were banned in France; and the poignant outsider anthem Bad Reputation, the first song Brassens ever wrote, from which you take the name of the band. Do you have a favorite? Or is it one that’s not here, that you haven’t covered yet?

PDG: I have translated 23 songs, 13 of which are on this album. There are 3 or 4 that were really hard to leave off the album, including Poor Martin (Pauvre Martin), The Bistro (Le Bistro), and The Old Man (L’ancetre). They will be on future albums or singles. I also have two favorites that I’m beginning to simmer in my brainpan for future translation: “La Rose, la bouteille, et la poignee de main” (The Rose, The Bottle, and The Handshake, which is about how all three of those things are abandoned and then adopted by the narrator) and one called Hecatombe which is about a group of irate women murdering some policemen at an outdoor market.

LCC: I’m curious – besides you, does anybody else in the band speak French?

PDG: Quentin Jennings, who plays keyboards, charango and xylophone in Bad Reputation, is British, but speaks French and helped with some translation problems when I got stuck. Christian Bongers, our bassist, is German but has a pretty good handle on French.

Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation play the cd release show for the album on June 12 at the Bell House at 7:30 PM.

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June 7, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the Day 2/17/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #162:

Telephone – Ordinaire

The title is French for “cheap wine;” this is an unhinged, Middle Eastern flavored tribute to the joys of drinking and driving by the iconic French rockers. From the 1981 Au Coeur de la Nuit album; the link above is a live version that segues into one of their big early hits, la Bombe Humaine.

February 17, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Snow’s CD Release Show at Joe’s Pub, NYC 1/16/10

Lucinda Black Bear open the night. They’re not bad. It’s always good to see a band start to realize their potential. They start with a couple of quiet 6/8 ballads that could have been ELO outtakes. The songwriting is getting closer to the level of the musicianship, which with all the strings and a killer rhythm section, is pretty stupendous. The bass player is doing all kinds of interesting things but he’s so low in the mix that you have to watch his fingers, which is a crime in a space like this. Quentin Jennings, late of Melomane, contributes some incisively memorable piano. The crowd seems have a collective case of cabin fever, just glad to be out of the house for a few hours. They love the band.

The Snow take the stage for the cd release show for their new one I Die Every Night with a three-piece reed section including Tony Jarvis, from main songwriter Pierre de Gaillande’s other project, Bad Reputation, playing bass clarinet. Hilary Downes, who will prove to have pretty much taken over fronting the band, is on piano. The first number is lush, artsy, with a funky rhythm and a bluesy horn break after the chorus. The lyrics are characteristically smart:

There’s a hole in the ice

There’s a hole in your heart

But the hole is greater

Than the sum of the parts

They play their signature song The Silent Parade, the band’s big 6/8 epic about the snowstorm to end all snowstorms. It’s more restrained than usual: that they resist turning this into gleeful grand guignol is impressive. There are sarcastic la-la-la’s and then some faux-blithe off-key whistling by Gaillande at the end.

Downes sings Undertow with her usual inscrutably sultry precision. It’s a clever, sarcastic narrative about a drowning. They follow that with Fool’s Gold, which welds an oldschool soul verse to a darker, more European chorus. And then a rather haunting, low-key number on which Gaillande switches to accordion, which as it blends with the horns enhances its noir cabaret plaintiveness.

Handle Your Weapon is pulsing and insistent – encouragement, maybe, for a would-be suicide to keep going. It’s hard to keep track of all the metaphors. “Soon it will be daylight.” Then they do Shadows and Ghost, by Downes and bring out every bit of its understated phantasmagoria, Gaillande tossing off a casual southwestern gothic guitar solo.

Moral Debtor, by tenor sax player Dave Spinley, is a tango. Long and Strange pulses along on a rumbling latin drumbeat. The guy/girl harmonies are gorgeous; Gaillande adds another twangy noir guitar solo that ends all too soon. They close with a darkly swinging Serge Gainsbourg-inflected pop song. The sold-out crowd wants more but the room has to be cleared for the next act, Bassam Saba of the NY Arabic Orchestra and his ensemble. The line outside grows longer and longer – no surprise, they’re really good.

After a show like this you need a drink to reflect and take it all in and remember the finer points.The party starts at Lakeside where Tie Me Up, the world’s only Spanking Charlene cover band are about to play all the hits: When I’m Skinny, Where Are the Freaks, Stupid Stupid Me (actually it’s really just Spanking Charlene playing their own stuff). And then vodka catches up with one of us and we end up missing the band – too bad, they sounded good from outside the bar.

January 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trouble in Tribeca, Part One: Bad Reputation, Rana Santacruz and Pistolera at the 92YTribeca, NYC 1/8/10

Friday night was Trouble Worldwide night at the 92YTribeca, part of the annual booking agents’ convention with sets from a mix of the best Barbes bands along with a couple of ringers, Rana Santacruz and the Cuban Cowboys. The Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande opened the night with his latest side project (this guy seems to always be in about five bands at once), Bad Reputation, whose raison d’etre is English versions of the songs of iconic, often bawdy French individualist Georges Brassens. Guillotinings and the Bastille aside, the French typically allow for a greater freedom of expression in song lyrics than has traditionally been the case here, so it was as striking as it was amusing to hear Gaillande deadpanning about “the nun who defrosts the penis of the amputee” in the ribald Don Juan. Guitarist Tony Jarvis lit up that one with some casually intense tremolo-picking, then switching to bass clarinet for most of the other numbers as the band gave them a swinging noir cabaret feel. Gaillande has obviously put a great deal of effort into making Brassens’ wordy, argotique narratives flow smoothly in English – and with rhymes! – and this paid off immensely in the curmudgeonly but sweet 1953 song Public Benches, the blithely cynical 95% of the Time (a hilarious tale of a woman who won’t settle for anything less than sex with love), the minor-key waltz Philistines (a tribute to teenage delinquency), the O. Henry-esque Princess and the Troubadour and the first song Brassens ever wrote, a defiant outsider anthem probably dating from 1940s. Bad Reputation’s debut cd is due out auspiciously on Barbes Records sometime this year.

Backed by a boisterous band including rhythm section, violin, accordion and banjo, Mexican songwriter Rana Santacruz delivered a wry, quirky set that brought a brisk Celtic edge to traditional Mexican folkloric styles. A characteristically tongue-in-cheek number, Noche de Perro reminisced about an affair gone sour, the howling of the dogs in the night a vivid reminder that “they were more faithful than you were.” They wrapped up a very well-received show with a punked out – or Pogued-out – cover of a Vicente Fernandez ranchera number and a drinking song.

In their micro-set, Pistolera sounded like the Mexican Go-Go’s with their playful, sunny, sweetly melodic janglepop. The songs – from their forthcoming second album which transplants New York to the desert – included a bouncy ranchera rocker about the New York subway, a reggae-flavored vacation song and the swinging, effervescent, minor-key Todos se Cai (Everybody Falls Down). Then they switched gears and proceeded to play as their alter ego, the children’s music group Moona Luna. 99% of the time, children’s music is smarmy, condescending and patronizing, obviously as a selling point for the yuppie moms who buy it regardless of the fact that they too were once young and hated that stuff. But just when it seemed that like every other children’s band, this group should be exiled to the lowest circle of hell, they played the most anti-parent song of the night, which goes something like this, in both Spanish and English:

I like to jump on the bed
I like to jump on the couch
I like to jump on the floor
More! More! More!

Pistolera frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez’ two-year-old daughter inspired that one. Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe someday the two can share a stage and do that together.

The second half of the show, with Chicha Libre, the Cuban Cowboys and Slavic Soul Party is reviewed here.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

El Grupo del Verano 2008! Chicha Libre Finally Puts Out a CD

This is the cultural artifact of the summer of 2008. It’s the one album released this year that you want to put on if you’re having a party and you want to get everyone’s attention (or impress everybody with your brilliant and eclectic taste): you’ll get plenty of “who’s that?”s. Readers of this space already know plenty about Chicha Libre’s intoxicatingly good live performances at Barbes throughout the past year: now, the party is available for takeout. On their debut cd, Sonido Amazonico, America’s best (and only) chicha band have revived the amazingly danceable, hypnotic, psychedelic sound that was popular in the slums of the Peruvian Andes thirty-five years ago, while adding their own inimitable vision and wit.

Chicha is what resulted when Peruvian bands first heard American surf and psychedelic rock and then added electric instruments, rock arrangements and Caribbean rhythms to their own sound. What Antibalas did with driving, horn-driven African groove music, what Dengue Fever is doing with deliciously psychedelic Cambodian pop, Chicha Libre is doing with chicha. When frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan first heard the style, he was hooked, to the point where he found himself traveling to South America to track down as many original recordings as he could get his hands on, as well as the elusive musicians who created it. The result was the fascinating anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year on his label, Barbes Records.

Chicha Libre’s debut mixes instrumentals and vocal numbers, originals as well as deviously crafted cover songs. While in most surf music the guitars carry the melody, in Chicha Libre’s music it’s usually keyboardist Josh Camp’s vintage Hohner Electrovox (a relic from the 70s which is basically an electronic organ with settings that mimic the sound of an accordion) which serves as the lead instrument. In addition to Conan, the rest of the band includes two percussionists, acoustic bass and Barbes co-owner Vincent Douglas playing reverb-drenched, surfy guitar. The result can be haunting, triumphant, celebratory or absolutely mesmerizing, often all in the same song. While just as in surf music, there’s occasional cheese in places, Chicha Libre thankfully tones it down as much as possible. The vocal numbers (in both Spanish and French) are the most overtly humorous songs on the album.

There are so many great songs here. The title track, a hypnotic yet danceable one-chord vamp that builds to a nasty Douglas solo, and Tres Pasajeros, an ominous train-ride theme written by Camp. The amusing Hungry Song plays with the macho posturing found in a lot of latin music. Their cover of the obscure El Borrachito (The Little Drunk Guy) has the narrator asking plaintively in Spanish, “Why are you making fun of me?”

They take the famous Ravel Pavane and chichafy it, breaking it down into dub reggae at one point, then the band starts chanting “pavane, pavane, pavane,” quiet and deadpan in the background while the guitar solos. Indian Summer tips its hat to Serge Gainsbourg in a big way, Conan and las Rubias del Norte frontwoman Allyssa Lamb doing spot-on early 70s ye-ye harmonies over a slinky spy theme. They also cover Hot Butter’s silly synth instrumental hit Popcorn with a sarcastic, punk edge: the Electrovox is out of tune on the highest registers, and there’s a silly bass solo. And then the band adds their own lyrics, a tribute to corn whiskey and weed. The album ends with its best song, a cover of what is probably composer Erik Satie’s signature work, Gnossienne #1 (you’ll recognize it from a million movie soundtracks). As simple as it is macabre, it’s also extremely difficult to play on the piano because Satie deliberately omitted the time signature, leaving the rhythm completely up to whoever’s playing it. Chicha Libre give it a slightly staggered tango pulse, making it as sexy as it is dark. What else is there to say – this is a great album, a must-own if you like psychedelia, right up there with the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack and Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. Five maduros con queso. The cd is available at better record stores, online and at shows. Chicha Libre play the cd release tonight at Drom at 10; Las Rubias del Norte open the show at 9.

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musette Explosion Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/13/08

Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.

Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.

Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.

Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.

In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.

Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: Les Sans Culottes, Satanicide and Big Lazy Live in NYC 11/22/02

[Hope everybody had a good Thanksgiving! We’re digging into the archive til we’re back from the holiday next week. Hard to believe that it’s been five long years since this particular show – ed.] 

Went to Gwynne Duncan’s art opening in the afternoon in the wilds of Fort Greene. Actually, the space was just a few blocks off DeKalb Ave., but it felt like a long ways since it was pouring rain and pretty cold out. As expected, there was hardly anybody there. Duncan is excellent, paints in a whole mess of styles with strong command of all of them: gentle pastels, trippy psychedelic oils with tendrils of plants with eyes, social realism studies imagining evening subway commutes in the 30s and a ship named Ego adrift on the ocean. Ran into a friend who promised me a copy of the Robyn Hitchcock Royal Albert Hall Dylan cover show but still hasn’t delivered – we agreed that I’d give him a copy of the Mary Lee’s Corvette Blood on the Tracks show in exchange. Looks like somebody’s getting a way better deal here and that person isn’t me.

We waited a long time for the G train back to the F, then to CBGB where the Coffin Daggers had just left the stage. Bad information, lamented one of the band members. By now my companion was drunk on wine from the opening; we grabbed seats on a bench located comfortably in front of the sound board and were pleased to see some other friends come join us for the duration of the show. Les Sans Culottes have been around forever, since the late 80s. They’re a very good garage band playing a mix of Gainsbourg covers, some other French pop from 60s and their own faux-French originals. Everybody in the band has a silly French or franglais name: Clermont Ferrand, Jean-Luc Retard, Kit Kat Le Noir, ad infinitum. Frontman Bill Carney, whatever his nom de plume is, stays in character, affecting a French accent even while addressing the audience. They did their usual stuff, bolstered by a good, loud sound mix: Ecole de Merde (French for school of hard knocks), a few covers and a disco song that might or might not have been an original. It’s a tribute to these guys that it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Satanicide were next and also got good sound: people forget just how good the sonics at CB’s are. What Spinal Tap were to 70s British metal, Satanicide is to 80s American hair metal. They absolutely nail it, and the lack of a second guitarist doesn’t hurt them. Unsurprisingly, their one spandex-clad axeman didn’t do a lot of soloing. Dale May AKA Devlin Mayhem is actually an excellent singer, with a perfect take on the completely over-the-top Motley Crue thing. Sample song title: Pussy and Ice Cream. They also did a very funny one about a NJ metalhead girl that began as a sensitive power ballad that crescendoed predictably as it went on [most likely the title track to their hilarious cd Heather –  ed.]. After the show our crew scattered in different directions, so I went next door to the gallery to hang with another friend, who was closing, so on the spur of the moment I decided to catch Big Lazy at Tonic on the way home.

Timed this one pretty perfectly, as they went on about five minutes after I got there, about half past midnight. Technical difficulties abounded with the mix and the monitors on bassist Paul Dugan’s side of the stage. Victoria Hanna was in the house, and she eventually contributed delicious vocalese on the cinematic Tel Aviv Taxi, which the band played mid-set. Otherwise, they were somewhat subdued, at least by comparison to their usually scorching live sets, benefiting greatly from some unexpected restraint on the part of drummer Tamir Muskat. Which gave guitarist Steve Ulrich a chance to back off a little bit and use some wild fills as punctuation rather than wailing nonstop all night with descending runs, slides and his trademark eerie chromatic hooks. Most of their noir instrumentals were done very tersely, including the absolutely macabre Theme from Headtrader, the multi-part spaghetti western theme Our Lady of the Highways, a cover of an Astor Piazzolla tango, the pitch-black Amnesia, the lickety-split, rockabilly-inflected Princess Nicotine and finally the hourlong set’s closing number, the hilarious heavy metal parody Starchild. What’s the likehood of seeing two drastically different bands both do killer heavy metal sendups in one night? The band didn’t encore, and by now I’d reached the point where continued alcohol consumption would have required more energy than it would have been worth to reach any state of inebriation, so I went home.

[postscript: Les Sans Culottes – who will probably be around forever , continue to do what they do best, which is play live shows. CB’s and Tonic are both sadly defunct; Satanicide, true to its metal roots, plays the occasional reunion show, while Big Lazy are on indefinite hiatus.]

November 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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