SONIC REDUCER Viva les wild children, woodsmen, and Francophones and the ’philes that love them — wherever they may quaff cheap Beaujolais, don camembert-scented berets, and talk terroir ’n' Bataille. Zut alors! The clichés, the pretensions, the sauces — and the only thing red-blooded freedom fries–gobbling Americans have consistently felt way superior about has been le rock. Thank your "Rockin' in the Free World" and shake that deep-fried turkey butt on over here.
Nouveau chanson cuties like Benjamin Biolay, sis Coralie Clement, and ex Keren Ann have done their part to make a mark, but apart from late éminence grise Serge Gainsbourg and more recently Air, has French rock ever caught much respect? Can heart-throbber Phoenix get a break — never mind the fact that vocalist Thomas Mars has knocked up Sofia Coppola? Is this even an issue, one wonders, cocking an ennui-stricken ear to the latest from Snoop Dogg, the Game, Yusef (a.k.a. Cat Stevens in so-soft-it’s-nearly-subliminal mode), and Tom Waits?
The recent steady stream of très quirky French and French-language releases makes a case for tripping over Frédéric Chopin's and Jim Morrison's headstones at Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery in search of l'espirit de Gallicore, especially when stateside pop generally seems to be suffering from a bad-news hangover — with Britney's breakup and Whitney's move out. And they're unabashedly wild enfants terribles all — in the not-so-mute mode of the 19th-century Wild Boy of Aveyron — beginning with Serge's spawn Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom most recall entering the musical arena by way of a notorious duet with dad, his 1984 song "Lemon Incest" (the vid had the 12-year-old Charlotte passionately clutching pops's pants legs). Now after becoming an indie cinema heroine of sorts in Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, she has released a Nigel Godrich–produced debut, 5:55 (WEA International), which finds her warbling wistfully alongside Air (whose Jean-Benoit Dunckel has his own new solo CD under the name Darkel) and Jarvis Cocker. The deliriously weaving strings and haunting melody of her single, "Songs That We Sing," directly probes the sensuous, nostalgic vibe of her père's mind-scorching masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson (Fontana).
Still, 5:55 is aeons away in its shy, coltish sleekness from other recent oddities — including those of the Lille, France, threesome DAT Politics, who stopped in San Francisco earlier this month with a minialbum of electronic-pastiche pop punnily titled Are Oui Phony?? (Tigerbeat6). The joke plunges into the long-standing US-France tension between rockiste authenticity and cultural colonialism. DAT Politics' bold, gawky, yet carefree rubbery squeaks, bleats, and breakbeats sidestep and then frenetically bob alongside the entire issue.
Another disarming and ungainly recent disc owns its vulnerability like a bared breast: Le Volume Courbe's I Killed My Best Friend (Honest Jons) is a gently dissonant, whispery, and eclectic set of songs that seem to circle the emotional nakedness of folk with some of the honest, strange imprint of classic post-punk and experimental electronic musak. Backed by My Bloody Valentine's Colm O'Ciosoig and Kevin Shields and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and David Roback, London–by–way–of–Pays de la Loire, France, songwriter Charlotte Marionneau blends intimate, homespun-sounding and occasionally instrumental originals with the odd cover, like Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No ... I Got Life." Her album financed by Alan McGee for his Poptones imprint when her first single for the Creation Records pooh-bah's label sold out its 1,000-copy pressing in a week, Marionneau sounds like a bleary-eyed Feist hooked on Mum and Smog.
And speaking of that Canadian-French darling, it turns out there are other Francophone wonders up north.