Union of Sound: France

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2 December 2013
By: Sam Murray

Welcome to another edition of Union of Sound, a unique exploration of Popular Music in Europe taking in music from acts that innovative, creative and exciting. Last week I talked about music that is exciting me from Italy and this week we are going to the land of wine, cheese and a bloody massive bike race, got it yet? Of course! It’s La France! France is a land of many musical cultures from the chansons of no regret from Edith Piaf to more recent global elector disco domination from two blokes dressed as robots giving us the hit track of the year, this of course being Daft Punk and that song ‘Get Lucky’. France is a country that came into its musical self in the twentieth century with many of the great musical pioneers of that period haunting Paris including Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc. It also is a country that played host to the most important artists the world has seen including Claude Monet and Toulouse Lautrec. France has become associated with sophistication, high glamour, the nouveau riche and nouvelle cuisine although if you watch Les Mis or read the works of Abbé  Sieyès, Victor Hugo or Voltaire you’d imagine they’d all be turning in their graves at this image. In the past few years thanks to the rise in electro-pop and disco in France and consequently globally France is well and truly pinned to the musical map, and probably is the second largest contributor to global pop in Europe behind the UK.

So where do I begin my journey into France. Well I’ve shamefully only visited my neighbours across the channel only once! I visited a small village in Normandy called Pont L’eveque and my musical encounters there were quite bizarre, not really French music but rather the terminator theme full blast at a motivational speaking conference happening while I was playing a round of crazy golf with ma famille. But that doesn’t mean to say I’ve not been paying attention! For me there is one singer at the moment who is French perfection and that is Camille. Camille Dalmais is one of the most truly original performers left on this wee planet and pushes boundaries constantly through her exploration of the capabilities of the voice. Her breakthrough record Le Fil is simply astonishing with the entire record being based around a drone of the note B, the title in fact means ‘the thread’ and refers to this continuous note attached to which are perfectly crafted pop songs. The concept becomes even more fascinating when after the final track is a continuous drone for over half an hour, a space in which Camille invites listeners to use to compose musical responses to her ideas.  The track ‘Ta doleur’ became popular as the theme tune to the regular Saturday Night Live sketch ‘Les Jeunes de Paris’, but it’s probably the highlight of the record all jokes aside. Camille’s last record ‘ilo Veyou’ (spot the hidden message yet?) is probably the best French record I’ve ever bathed my ears in. Camille puts her voice to the test with not only satirical pop songs about living on mars (Mars is No Fun) and kooky impressions of Piaf-esque chanson (La France) but tests of vocal production with pops (Bubble Lady), beatboxing and sung instrumental parts (ilo Veyou) and attention to pronunciation noises from slurping s’ to pounding p’s (Aujourd’hui). Tender moments live alongside outbursts of rage; the soul strong vocals sit by vulnerable episodes and the spoken word. Truly innovation has never sounded any better and Camille certainly is the best artist in France right now.

In the music world France has become the cultural crossing point for the dubiously titled genre of World Music. Most popular ‘world music’ has in fact been recorded in Paris such as the likes of Yossou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Nana Mouskouri. France itself often reaches out to its former African and Middle-eastern colonies to see what music is out there with recent musical relations in countries ranging from Mali to Algeria to Lebanon. An example of this is WOMEX hit act Fanfaraï which combines musicians from Algeria and France. One of the most intriguing artists France has produced is Theirry ‘Titi’ Robin, a man who I had the immense pleasure of meeting at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in early 2012. Thierry is a musical collaborator bringing his unique guitar style learnt from gypsy and arabic communities in the south of France infact his biggest influences are a flamenco singer and an Iraqi oud player. In 2009 he teamed up with Pakistani Qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz to make Jaadu (Magic) one of the most important records ever conceived in the world fusion genre. The record is deeply spiritual without a specific religious agenda and you become drawn in by the immense collaboration of the acrobatic Qawwali vocals of Faiz Ali Faiz matched somersault to somersault by Robin’s virtuosic Oud skills. The combination is so powerful you feel caught up in its immensity and escape all other existence while it enters your ears and clears your head. Also featured in this project, as part of Robin’s band, is Brazilian percussionist Ze Luis Nascimento, known for his work with Mayra Andrade, adding his breathtakingly rhythmic sensibilities to a record that is only more enhanced by the live experience. Jaadu will expand your mind musically and spiritually and is definitely worth devoting a listening experience to.

The electro pop movement in France has been ridiculously creative giving us such a wide spectrum of musical possibility. Daft Punk may now be dominating the world but they have humble beginnings and through careful musical risk taking have enraptured the world. The group have redefined the parameters of the live elector experience giving a way for DJs to actually perform, best capture in their 2007 Alive tour which saw the due spin their tracks from a giant pyramid on which was projected a myriad of visuals. But Daft Punk aren’t the only band in France to have impacts electronic pop music. Air are another well enjoyed export of this sound. Air are perhaps more serene and expanding as opposed to the kinetic electro of Daft Punk. They have a tendency to craft such open spaces with musical beauty musically painting the spaces we got to, to relax and sustain. By coincidence Air are also a duo act, but they aren’t wearing masks and aren’t incognito. For me their masterpiece songs come when they find a unique and mysterious musical serenity be it the high place instrumentation of Once Upon a Time on Pocket Symphony, the slowdown female gaze of Moon Safari’s Sexy Boy or the curious quirky crafting of a welcoming Parade on their soundtrack Le Voyage dans la Lune. I remember having an awesome Year 9 maths teacher who would play Moon Safari during lessons to focus us, so if you’re stuck to soundtrack boring maths give Air a try. Records like this suggest a debt to UK born trip-hop and can see contemporaries in the likes of Groove Armada, Lamb, Zero 7 and Lemon Jelly showing the entente cordiale effort in chilling us all out. They passed this knowledge on through musical apprentices such as Sebastian Tellier whose La ritournelle is a masterpiece of chill pop, although when you hear his track Divine which represented France in Eurovision it may seem hard to draw the lines.

One cross channel apprentice of Air’s has been innovative with her own musings and compositions. Charlotte Gainsbourg is not only a musician but an actress, famous for her role in The Science of Sleep and Von Trier’s Antichrist and Melancholia. Her lineage is inescapable with her father being the great Serge Gainsbourg France’s pop bad boy who dared to record a reggae version of the national anthem, sing a song called lemon incest (with Charlotte) and have a hit with a song including his wife actress Jane Birken simulating orgasm. (Je T’aime). Charlotte’s debut 5:55 is a combination of Air’s visionary space (they produced the record) with Charlotte’s beguiling vocal delivery that is recitativic in nature. You feel at some points she is developing the music of her father into more beautiful quaint territory but cheek is found in the bass lines that can dominate with a sexually alluring tone on tracks such as Jamais. Air have taught Charlotte how to really use instruments such as the piano and how to create light fluffy textures with a bit of style and class.

France now is beginning to excite the indie world as well as the dance music world. One of the most internationally DJs known is Frenchman David Guetta, love him or hate him he’s had impact. In terms of Indie music, the band Phoenix have seemingly come out of nowhere to excite, headlining several big festivals across the globe in the past year. Their latest record Bankrupt! has lit the indie world alight with hope. The band seems like the sonic heirs to the strokes despite the bands emerging at the same time. The synth addition seems to lead off the New York garage indie making the Parisian edge cool. Perhaps Phoenix’s success will turn a spotlight on the French capital again and who knows who might step up to the plate. With Phoenix emerging from the indie ashes, who knows how France will respond so all eyes on the Eiffel Tower!

France has way more music than I could possibly discuss here be it the latest Chanson Queen Patricia Kaas, the Breton folk stars such as Gwnnyn, the cheeky African inspired pop from the likes of Jessy Matador or the singers songwriters making interesting noises such as Zaz or Jeanne Cherhal. France is a country that prides itself on having unique cultural credentials and I’m sure new genres will continue to flourish I recently had a good tip that French disco is about to hit big with producers such as Aeroplane leading the way, perhaps this is the direction France is heading in. As France inspires and Innovates pop I’ll be looking across the channel to see what my ears will celebrate next.

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