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There’s a singular sense of romanticism in francophone poésie

April, 2011

If you think francophone music begins and ends with, say, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and maybe Robert Charlebois, think again. Sure, these artists—and others like Gilles Vigneault, Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Barbara and Juliette Greco—are immortals of chanson, still worth listening to if only because they’re eternally “culturally relevant” in a deeply poetic sense.

But there are many others of more recent vintage, on both sides of the Atlantic, who bring chanson more musically up to date. Although francophone music has often been laughed at by some oh-so-hip know-nothings in the English-speaking world, it nevertheless offers many qualities often in short supply from Anglo-American pop fare.

First of course is an accent on lyrics—derived from the French literary tradition—usually recorded high in the mix so that listeners can feel the full force of their “poésie.” In this sense, there’s still a singular sense of romanticism in francophone song craft.

Singers from France and Quebec share forms of otherness, looking at anglo-American musical developments from a cultural distance (created by difference of language) but able to cherry-pick what they like in the pop-rock vernacular. The European classical tradition cannot help but add to the mix, and now there’s the strong rhythmic drive of North African music from former French colonies.

There’s also a natural tension, or friendly rivalry, between Québécois acts and those of the former mother country. Quebec musicians treat North American rock forms as second nature, a condition acts from Europe look at with no small envy.

Add up these historical and aesthetic factors and we arrive at a music scene that is quite the opposite of laughable—uniquely rich and immensely fertile. And for bilingual English-language listeners, it can be a genuine treat, an alternative worthy of celebration.

The rise of Pierre Lapointe over the last decade has proved that quality sells. With the Montrealer’s confidence and fearlessness for musical experimentation matching his enormous talent, the singer-composer’s songs deal with colourful outsized characters and mysterious inner reveries. He thinks big: His stage shows are spectacularly ambitious (including a memorable outdoor affair with his rock band joining L’Orchestre Metropolitain two years ago, captured on disc). The link between avant-garde and pop has rarely been so cohesively presented. His latest album, Solo Piano (he’s an excellent pianist in the European tradition), distills his songs to their bare essences.

Arthur H leads all singer-songwriters from France in all-around musical talent (he’s a superb pianist in a jazzy style) and the largesse of his subject matter (from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to death by casino and the quest for fame by a wannabe assassin). The son of ’70s star Jacques Higelin also has strong connections to Quebec, having recorded here often.

Recommended: Mystic Rhumba (also the title of his compilation album) and Adieu tristesse.

Rock bands are harder to maintain than solo careers in the small local market, but Malajube and Karkwa have both found success outside Quebec. The joke about Malajube—explaining its appeal as a cult band around the world—is that even French speakers have a hard time understanding their lyrics, so buried are they in a careening joyous rock noise. Karkwa offers more prog-rock structures—but without the bombast, for they are excellent ensemble musicians—and have the most recent Polaris Music Prize and several Félix Awards to show for it.

WD-40 is the hard-luck band “chez nous,” their career sabotaged by personal hiccups and lack of career direction. But they have an inimitable sound—lumbering country-rock with a touch of punk—and a singer (Alexandre Jones) with a booming voice like Elvis. Their last album, Sainte-Panache, is a tour de force—evocative, touching, a tad mysterious—that’s among my personal Top 10 Québécois discs of all time. Two female québécoises of note: Anik Jean has a yearning voice that sounds morphed from ’60s girl groups. Her most recent album, Le Ciel seigne le martyre, is a gut-wrenching swirl of sound, produced by Bowie denizen Marc Platti and featuring ace guitarist Earl Slick. A sweeter, softer, huskier voice is Ariane Moffatt, a great talent who quickly became an idol of a new generation of young women with her first album. A musical dynamo with nuance-filled vocal oscillations, she’s at her best in Le Coeur dans la tête.

And from France there’s Camille, who cleaned up at the prestigious Victoires Awards two years ago; equally adept in English, this outsize young talent’s best album is Le fil, the songs connected by a single humming note.

Jérôme Minière, originally from Belgium via France who made his home in Montreal’s “Petit Italie,” is one of the modest gems of local pop. Don’t let his gentleness fool you: He’s highly perceptive, an anthropological rather than political observer, i.e.: “Mon pays n’a pas du nom.” (His ingenious alter-ego Herri Kopter explores the realities of being a cog in a corporate machine on two albums.) The eternal “petit cosmonaut,” he’s also a splendid producer. Try his latest, Coeurs.

Well worth discovering is Mickey (3D) and his La Grande evasion. Quirky, profoundly whimsical, and slightly lost with life passing him by, the Frenchman brings a unique blend of folk, pop, grunge and tweaks of techno.

Martin Léon’s beautiful sounding Les Atomes is the mellowest Québécois production in years. His understated warmth is by turns comforting and compelling. Luc Bonin’s nom de plume is Urbain Desbois—get it? —the absurdist clown prince of Quebec chanson, self-deprecating and humanistic. To wit: The title song of his latest album, La gravité me pèse. Other quality-conscious artists worth exploring include the energetic Yann Perreau, folk-rocker Vincent Vallières and ex-Beau Dommage leader Michel Rivard.

Catharine Major is the classiest chanteuse to emerge in recent years, by turns thoughtful and emotional, and fine pianist. Jean Leloup is the crazy man of Quebec chanson, with a substantial English following, with intensely rhythmic music couching off-the-wall lyrics. The rappers Abd Al Malik and Grand Corps Malade, from France, are stone sober and serious. They replace the American braggadocio obsession with “bling” with a far more cogent reflection, and analysis, of life as a minority in les banlieues (or suburbs), without shying away from their indebtedness to Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Finally, save some time for the legendary Serge Gainsbourg, who died 20 years ago. Provocateur par excellence, sexual vagabond, chain-smoking scourge of political correctness, there was no one like him anywhere. One of the rare artists from the swinging ’60s to maintain his creatively corrosive lustre to the end, he remains the godfather to all who followed.



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