France

‘Everybody’s got to learn sometime,’ cover Jean-Philippe Verdin/Readymade FC (Lol film soundtrack, EMI/Capitol, 2009)

Reasons to appreciate this cover: the voice, I’m touched by the way he sings these familiar words, this such a familiar song, the French-accented inflections on the word ‘heart’ with that emphasised final consonant (and off phrasing at times, the stretched vowel on ‘it’ as in ‘it will astound you …’ which makes it seem more genuine) and then how the music changes just over half-way to include surprising sound effects, a kind of controlled improvisation that sounds almost animal-like.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how so often the arrangements in soul music from the 60s/70s are eccentric, including sounds and/or riffs on sounds that serve no apparent purpose, other than to provide decoration and embellishment, as a kind of caprice. Such additions add to the overall effect, but are not essential. They either add to the sweeping orchestral impressiveness, or are touching and unexpected: amateur in the best possible way, in the true sense of the word. There is great joy to be found in this, in the revelling in freedom and abundance, via the addition of beautiful, unexpected and surprising details and turns in the music. Much the same could be said for the electronic musings that emerge in the latter half of this song that are quite different to the music that preceded it.

Verdin’s cover appeared on the soundtrack to the French film, Lol. Here is a link to the French musician/composer's site, categories: Albums & Singles, Scores & Soundtracks, Productions, arrangements, Akzidenz Grotesk, Remixes & Versions. Beck also did a cover of the song for the 2004 film soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is lovely if a little bland and lacking any particular point of difference to the original. 

The original by The Korgis came out in 1980: according to my favourite free online factopedia ‘the unique sounding instrument played after each chorus is the 18 string Chinese zither known as a guzheng’.  

‘L’amante religieuse’/’Hysm’ Émile Parisien Quartet (Au revoir porc-épic, Laborie Jazz, 2006)

 

With its light-hearted reference to one of the talismanic tracks in the history of jazz (‘porc-épic’ is ‘porcupine’ in French) this release presents itself a little deceptively, as this music is more Spiritual, deeply mood-driven and mystical, rather than anything like the eccentric, (at times) high-energy hard-edged squall and bop of Charles Mingus. 

Any of the tracks on the record deserve attention but ‘L’amante religieuse’ is particularly sweet for its mood of anticipation and the way it moves from 2’20”. 

A review of the album by Mathieu Durand, published in French in Citizen Jazz, speaks of ‘L’amante religieuse’ saying how it makes manifest the quartet's primary influences (Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Coltrane) while noting its pyramid structure, the way each musician makes their entrance, as is the style of classic jazz recordings, all against a sombre background.  

(… les mélodies se transforment de-ci, de-là en lignes sinon free du moins chaotiques - en témoigne l’antinomique « L’amante religieuse », à la construction pyramidale. A partir d’une introduction orientale où Parisien démarre seul, chaque musicien fait son entrée, de manière décalée, sur la pointe des pieds : la contrebasse, sombre, à l’archet, précède la batterie, puis un piano souvent en arpèges plus qu’en accord. Le morceau palpite jusqu’à se clore sur une sortie successive des instruments). 

Appropriately for music carrying such a title this is music for contemplation, music that carries within it some call towards a non-material value. 

And yet as Durand notes the titles are often ‘humorous’ even including a reference to Homer Simpson; he welcomes this as a change within the often too-serious milieu of contemporary jazz. Speaking about another track ‘Le clown tueur de la fête foraine’ he notes that the Émile Parisien Quartet is not looking to make listeners laugh, or think, ‘only to play’. 

To quote Durand once more, he writes how ‘Hysm’ recalls film sound-tracks, and the ‘nostalgic moods’ of McCoy Tyner when he accompanied Coltrane to end with another reference to J.C. saying how the entire album would appeal to those who admire the work of the saxophonist.  

Coda : 

‘Sankara’ JP Manova (19h07, Not on Label/Self-Released, 2015)

[Intro : Sample]
"Les masses populaires en Europe ne sont pas opposées aux masses populaires en Afrique. Mais ceux qui veulent exploiter l’Afrique, ce sont les mêmes qui exploitent l’Europe. Nous avons un ennemi commun."

 ‘The working-class in Europe are not in opposition to the working-class in Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are the same who exploit Europe. We have a common enemy.'

Thomas Sankara, president Burkina Faso, 1983-1987

In a 2015 interview entitled ‘I met JP Manova, the invisible man of French rap’ - originally in French - by Ramses Kefi the very, very famous French rapper MC Solaar refers to Manova as the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ for his secretive, or publicity-shy ways. (Manova asked the interviewer repeatedly why he wanted to meet him). But despite his low profile, Manova offers a fine continuity with the past and the contemporary hip-hop scene in France. 

This track, ‘Sankara’ is a perfect example of Manova’s skill to present a powerful argument, keeping it cool, while skewering the hypocrisy of Westerners looking at Africa, whatever that means; see, for example these great lines:

À ceux qui pensent l'Afrique comme un clip de Shakira
Où le blanc mène la danse et les nègres suivent le pas

(For those who think Africa is like a clip from Shakira/Where the whites lead the dance and the negroes – or niggers, it’s the same in French - follow the steps)

There is a submerged intensity, or anger in this song and the way the lyrics are delivered, alongside a kind of intimacy where the repeated refrain suggests that if you – we – have these questions, or prejudices we will keep coming back to Thomas Sankara, the great revolutionary leader who promised another way forward in the post-colonial era.

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Sankara:  

‘Sankara declared the objectives of the “democratic and popular revolution” to be primarily concerned with the tasks of eradicating corruption, fighting environmental degradation, empowering women, and increasing access to education and health care, with the larger goal of liquidating imperial domination. During the course of his presidency, Sankara successfully implemented programs that vastly reduced infant mortality, increased literacy rates and school attendance, and boosted the number of women holding governmental posts. On the environmental front, in the first year of his presidency alone 10 million trees were planted in an effort to combat desertification. On the first anniversary of the coup that had brought him to power, he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means roughly “land of upright people” in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s two most widely spoken indigenous languages.’

Here is an interview – in French – with JP Manova around the release of his record where he speaks about the values of hip-hop and gives his thoughts on Trap among other subjects.

Manova grew up in the 18th arrondissement, the area in northern Paris where there are large North African and West African communities, he has described how this experience of not growing up in the banlieues  (the poor, largely immigrant neighbourhoods surrounding central Paris) gave him a particular perspective.

As he told the online magazine Le Bon Son in 2015

‘We’re not in the banlieue, but the edge of it; we’re not in Paris, but on the edge of it. It’s a working-class area … where there are workers, immigrants, but also Sacré Cœur the tourist site the whole world wants to see’ (this is my neighbourhood as well, so I appreciate this description when I’m so far away).

Coda:

‘Eternel été’ Ezechiel Pailhès (Circus Company, 2017)

“Au milieu de l'hiver, j'ai découvert en moi un invincible été.”

Albert Camus

Purposefully slowed down to create a sleepwalking mood, part little girl’s music box with the spinning ballerina, part disco echo, this song traverses the borderline between the overly sweet to create its own musical headspace that is forever holding back.

Linking the consonants so as to create new words, new meanings – the title could suggest a new noun that doesn’t exist in French, the way North Americans add ‘ess’ or ‘ful’ to create new words – the eternalness, perhaps (even if a word already exists for eternity, of course).

Shy, older uncle singing and a rubber-band beat to become a distended hand-clap or basic tambour, this song is lovely in its musical lyricism and ambiguity, making statements with no apparent connection between them, words that I mishear – trop ardent becomes an expression of apology on first hearing, rather than denuded intensity. The centre does not hold.

The corny guitar element at just before two minutes is intentional, but alright because it’s appreciated for what it is; the ironic effect is held within a certain sphere of gentle sincerity.

'90% of me is you’ Vanessa Kendrick (Glades Records, 1973) & Gwen McCrae (Rockin’ Chair, Cat, 1975)

Nice, with the subtle wah-wah (hard to imagine that adjective being used with this kind of guitar playing style; listening to it again, though I'm not sure if it is in fact a guitar, anyway), the Kendrick version is the smoothest certainly with the vocal-line held level with the music. I really like that over-dramatic build-up that fades, coming back every now and again.

In contrast, the Gwen McCrae version released the following year with its near identical, if not identical backing-track, has a much stronger personality that drives it along it along, making it a more assertive statement that comes through with the refrain ‘What can I do?’

Check out this interview with McCrae by a Swedish woman who goes by the name of Miss Funkyflyy, it's full of strong background information on the much-sampled, respected Soul star from the 70s. I particularly liked the interviewer's personal tale of discovery, where the enthusiasm comes through:    

Raised on Abba, like most Swedish girls of my generation, my first encounter with Soul came at the time when I was still more interested in my dolls than boys. I loved music, though, especially Disco, but the tiny pocket money I received weekly would not allow me to buy records. So when I discovered a huge bowl of cassettes that were on sale at the discount store where my parents bought groceries each Saturday, I was truly in heaven.

So what if the tapes were dusty and several years old! The choice was not easy, but finally I settled for the cassette with the most appealing sleeve. Luscious palm trees and a paradise-like beach adorned the sleeve of “The Best of T.K. Records -The Sound Of Sunshine” and the artists were K.C. and The Sunshine Band, Betty Wright, Timmy Thomas, George McCrae, Benny Latimore.. I hadn’t heard of any of these people, but when I got home and popped the tape in my deck, their music grooved me in a way I had never experienced before.

The climax came when Gwen McCrae, in the finest Gospel-tradition, moaned and wailed her way through a song called “Move Me Baby”. From that point on, I was hooked. The years went by and I grew out of playing with Barbie dolls, but I never stopped loving Gwen and the Sunshine sounds from Florida, the orange State.

Madlib (apparently) sampled McCrae's version of '90 % ...' on his 2001 Beat Konducta, Vol. 0 Earth Sounds release out on Stones Throw records, 'Tape Hiss (Dirty)' (and sampled another McCrae song, ‘I found love’ on his 2008 ‘Gamble on ya boy’)

Coda:

Grace (Miss Jones)

Nostalgia is not something I go in for, it strikes me as an admission of defeat and just a little bit embarrassing, as if you're ready to crawl on off already like a spider that just got sprayed. But also the era of music that it could perhaps be said I am 'nostalgic' for took place when I was a tiny person, I never lived it.

And then as a woman I know that the paeans to the past that so many establishment radio/music figures, across the genres, indulge in have a tendency to skip over the women who then, as now, struggle to get the same attention, or respect.

(Small diversion: I read an interview yesterday with a very respected late MC who said how he never listened to female MCs, didn't like them, as a rule; as if women, all women, were a category on a menu you could just leave out and then explain away as a dietary preference). 

And yet, and yet ... Grace Jones. I do feel nostalgic for the glory that is Grace Jones and other nasty women of her ilk. The wonderful thing about Miss Jones, though, was that she was as sweet/funny as she was fierce and so smart not only in terms of her look, but her music as well.

This piece of writing started off being a celebration of this remix of the magnificent 'Pull up to the bumper' ...

This is so hot, oh my excuse me; listen to the space-age effects, and that out of this world bass-line and then her so-sweet vocals that tease against the groove. And then how it breaks down to the core elements for her to return again.

(There's something nice about this remix, a little amateur at certain points, as if the DJ/producer is so taken by the beat he can't let it go and keeps it running and running, when a more 'professional type' would bring it back to the central refrain, the melody as is expected).  

But then necessarily this piece of writing, this celebration, became more expansive as I again realised just how fantastic Grace Jones's music is three decades plus on.  

'Pull up to the bumper' was first released on her 1981 record, Nightclubbing (Island Records) that featured the great Sly & Robbie - as critics have noticed the record has a strong dub/reggae feel in terms of the rhythms employed. I like this quote from Sly Dunbar speaking about the recording process:

When we were in the studio with Grace, there was a big picture of her – a big picture, going right across – on the wall of the studio, then she’d be standing there singing, so when we were playing and getting a groove all we could see was her. We took it on that reggae kind of trip, but always with Grace in mind.
— FACT magazine, 2014

Check out this live performance from Grace Jones of two singles from the Nightclubbing record, where she is so majestic strange and otherworldly, the rather timid applause reflects apparent confusion among the audience, it seems (not surprising when you see how she uses some of the people on stage as furniture, part of the backdrop for her performance).

(This fan comment received a reply of 'Tea' from 'Miss Jones' though I'm not sure if it's a genuine account of the artist: 'She's a piece of art. Such a surreal entity! her aura is incredible, so sensual and mysterious. Some ones don't believe in Grace because part of her image was directed by Goude, but, others women wouldn't fit in her aesthetic, some singers of today took things from her but they don't get the same result, is her aura, is her. She isn't manipulated by the aesthetic, she brings the aesthetic, the identity. My favourite human in the world.')

The track, 'I've seen that face before' brings forward another reason why I respect her so much as an artist: the broad mix of musical influences that shows an ability to think across genres for the points of commonality. Tango, in this case ...

Inevitably different genres of music have contrasting levels of drama, and/or intensity and what Jones has picked up here is the essentially theatrical - performance-based - nature of Argentine music, or tango, but then she makes it her own, with these very arch lyrics (and delivery, of course):

Strange, I’ve seen that face before,
Seen him hanging ‘round my door,
Like a hawk stealing for the prey,
Like the night waiting for the day,

Strange, he shadows me back home,
Footsteps echo on the stones,
Rainy nights, on Hausmann Boulevard,
Parisian music drifting from the bars,

Tu cherches quoi, rencontrer la mort?
Tu te prends pour qui
Toi aussi tu detestes la vie

Dance in bars and restaurants,
Home with anyone who wants,
Strange he’s standing there alone,
Staring eyes chill me to the bone ....

Much is made of the image of Grace Jones, the way she used her 'blackness' or her beauty to reinforce something, this depends on the perspective of the critic, but just - just? - on the basis of her music, I believe she is a radical, important artist. In the end, it doesn't 'matter' what she looked like.

This era, late 70s, early 80s, is defined by great artistry in dub and electronic music more generally, undoubtedly, but within the mainstream pop-osphere, the realm where Grace Jones was playing, I can't think of a more important artist in terms of the coherent nature of the sound and output. No other artist, or performer comes close (then or since).

For a charming talk-show performance with Joan Rivers have a look at this video. Jones talks about her family (she was a minister's daughter) and how when asked to nominate her apex of wildness she once went to a party in the nude, save for some bones around her neck (they were animal bones, she adds quickly). 

'Ma Benz' Brigitte - cover (Et vous, tu m'aimes?, 3eme Bureau, 2011) & NTM

Laisse moi zoom zoom zang
Dans ta B*nz Be*nz B*nz
Gal’, quand tu te pointe ton bumpa
Me rends dingue dingue dingue
Laisse moi zoom zoom zang
Dans ta B*nz Be*nz B*nz
Gal’, quand tu te pointe ton bumpa
Me rends dingue dingue dingue

[LORD KOSSITY]
Gal’, t’es sexy, viens voir Kossity
Original workaman dans la ville de Paris
Gal’s t’es jolie dans ton Versace
Viens t’amuser avec un DJ top célébrity
Wine, bouge! Carré sur le groove
J’aime les gal’s surtout quand les gals move
Move-up, move-up
Rough, comme une louve
Bouge ton corps de la tête au pied
Et là, j’t’approuve
Move-up, move-up
Gal wine ton body
Montre leur que t’a pas peur
D’exciter tous les bandits
Wine comme une vipère si t’a le savoir faire
T’inquiète pas, y’a pas de galère
J’le dirais ni a ton père ni a ta mère
Ondule comme un ver de terre
Jette-moi dans les yeux
Ton regard de panthère ...

Retro poetic: MC Solaar

If you go online trying to find information on France's most famous rapper (from the 90s), MC Solaar what you find are the videos, sure but also countless pleas from fans for his return. MC Solaar was considered to be the country's biggest breakthrough act (as in his 1994 record, Prose Combat sold 100,000 on its release and was a best-seller in 20 countries; he was featured on GURU's 1993 JazzMattaz Vol 1 album ...

which showcased his distinctive intimate style, close to the mic, with those rapid-fire moments where it speeds up for it to fall back again) but and in recent years he's been very quiet.

I'm pretty sure I once had Prose Combat on cassette and remember when I first heard it on release, being impressed by the complex symphonic quality of the compositions and the intense mood of many of the tracks. Consider this one, for example, 'La concubine de l'hemoglobine' (here with English subs, done by a fan with a small mix-up mentioned in the comments). 

As a non-native speaker of French, who has studied and not studied the language etc and knows she should study more etc I love listening to MC Solaar as it allows me to appreciate French for its essential beauty, outside the context of the quotidian that can be pretty oppressive here at times.

Mc Solaar's uncovering, unmasking of French as a language separate from meaning comes from MC Solaar's awareness of the way language works as individual sounds, as phonemes. Many MCs, arguably the most talented ones get this, of course, they know that to create an impression of density and wit in their rhymes it's all about how they manipulate key sounds (in a way that surprises us and encourages us to look at language anew). MC Solaar does this for effect, but also sometimes to offer a kind of ironic commentary.

Here's a freestyle which again shows MC Solaar's skill and his unexpected points of reference (Copenhagen becoming Nina Hagen). At the start he's joking with the host about his visits to Scandinavia and becoming an East European: a black guy in the snow. 

'La concubine de l'hemoglobine' is not only an example of MC Solaar's clever word-play, it has an extraordinary power about it, driven perhaps by the very simple (deep 90s) instrumental, but also the way it refuses to define its subject; is it about heroin, or violence, hate, prejudice or something else? Un hold-up mental ...  It's one of those tracks that takes hold of you because of its intelligence and refusal to be simplify, all the while being extremely elegant, beautiful. And at the end there is MC Solaar's confession straight to the mic of his fear, of how he feels afraid.

Prose Combat from beginning to end is full of amazing songs, but in terms of the 'iconic' track that defines the work, it'd be 'Nouveau western' which samples the S.Gainsbourg/B.Bardot classic 'Bonnie and Clyde' (the Indian cry) from 1968.

This 'version' by MC Solaar makes manifest the essential potential of hip-hop as a genre; as a form of music that is always suggestive, allusive and for this reason encourages us to see/hear things differently (or feel how it might be to live a life different to what you know personally). The fact that the music is made up of various sources gives it a space that allows us to come to the music with a spirit of discovery. This is extremely liberating; as the music, and interpretations of it, are always multiple - necessarily.    

This track while making explicit reference to tropes from the U.S. 'Wild West' reinvented for the French market (Lucky Luke etc) teases the Parisian 'gangsters' who use this mythology to guide their actions, or self-image. (This is a repeated theme in MC Solaar's work, see 'Gangster Moderne' from 1997).   

In a 2010 interview, MC Solaar explained how in his early work he wanted to combine politics with views on society, with poetry, good writing and then imbue this all with a feeling of friendship and brotherhood (fraternité). He also described how for French artists coming into prominence in the 90s, the goal was to create something new - out of a mix of Geto Boys; the chants/griots from Mali and Guinea; stories from the neighbourhoods (quartiers), re-interpreted by people who knew 'US hip-hop by heart'. 

To close, here is a MC Solaar track that I have a huge amount of affection for, mainly for its light touch and generosity towards the people he's describing: those battling it out in extreme poverty and tough circumstances, who are still able to find their own 'paradise' within it (whether it is idolising Porno Stars or Pablo Escobar). 

Viens dans les quartiers voir le paradis
Où les anges touchent le RMI
Ici le scooter est le véhicule
Et les beepers pullulent
C’est d’un pas léger qu’arrive l’huissier
Accompagné du serrurier
Les idoles des jeunes sont des porno-stars
Voire Pablo Escobar
Si les anges ont des ailes ici les gosses volent
Demande à Interpol
Ils ont des pogs et songent à leur jacuzzi
A chacun son paradis

Here's the video for the song, with much better sound quality (but an abrupt ending and distracting/strange, to me at least, US-location thematics).

And surely it's close to impossible to dislike a track sampling that sublime 1976 Diana Ross pinnacle of disco glitz and wonder ('Love Hangover') ...

(Apologies to MC Solaar for diverting the focus for 8 mins 43, I don't wish this track by Diana Ross was the soundtrack to my life; I'd like it to be my life.

Hal Davis instructed the song’s engineer Russ Terrana to install a strobe light so that Ross could be in the “disco” mindset. As the song changed from ballad to uptempo, Ross became more comfortable with the material; she hummed, sang bit parts, laughed, danced around and even imitated Billie Holiday. The carefree and sensual nature of Ross’ vocals and the music’s direction helped to sell the song).
— Wikster