Paradise Found: Rockfort On Christophe & Powerdove
, March 8th, 2013 07:32
In our latest French music column, David McKenna delves into an album of unearthed rarities from 'avant-MOR' cult star Christophe, and recommends Powerdove's restless new LP Do You Burn
Christophe – born Daniel Bevilacqua in the suburbs to the south of Paris to Italian parents - is a slightly Scott Walker-ish figure in French music. He hit the big time as a yé-yé star in the 60s, a playboy, speed-limit exceeder and heart-throb crooner of ballads like the massively successful 'Aline', but he's cult-worshipped for some lush 70s work, some of which saw Jean-Michel Jarre working as his lyricist.
In between these two spells of public prominence, at the end of the 60s, he disappeared from view, but it wasn't a monastery he retreated to - he genuinely ran away to join a circus, run by renowned circus director Alexis Grüss. When he left, Grüss gave him the gift of a baby lion called Christophe that he had to keep with him in a hotel, secured to the bed, until he could find someone to look after it more permanently.
The singer's hawk-like features and swept-back crest of hair, as well as the rumours of an unusual lifestyle (he sleeps in the daytime and works at night, he plays a big role in counter-terrorism, that sort of thing), have added to his myth, and he’s still considered something of an adventurer by sections of the music press but, in spite of his vampiric presence and the striking helium falsetto, when I watched a live show (I was informed these were fairly rare) a few years ago I couldn't locate the appeal. It wasn't that the material from his most recent album, Aimer Ce Que Nous Sommes, was too out there - there was nothing approaching Bish Bosch, or even Tilt - but rather a torpid prog-lite, nearly-pop songs weighed down by ponderous keyboard atmospherics and Reeves Gabrels-style soloing.
Also, if you have been in France at some point and encountered Christophe via a scenario like this...
...you can clearly be forgiven for not having wanted to dig any deeper.
A new French release, Paradis Retrouvé – a reference to 1973 album Paradis Perdu – tells a different story, one that others perhaps knew well enough before me. It's an album of rarities and unreleased tracks from a period between 1972 and 1982 when he was signed to the Disques Motors label run by producer Francis Dreyfus, who would also put out Jarre's Oxygène.
On Paradis Retrouvé, you're not quite getting Christophe the bedroom producer, since he had access to a full studio and session musicians but, intentionally or otherwise, it does cast him as a maverick researcher hunkering down in his avant-MOR laboratory. Ariel Pink wouldn't find too much to add; the best songs are already compellingly strange and strangely homely. A number of the 13 tracks, frequently early ideas that mutated into songs that actually saw the light of day, are characterised by the kit that Christophe, a synth junkie, happened to be trying out at the time. 'Fairlight' is self-explanatory, 'Night Welcome' uses a Memorymoog - "a synth with a sad sound", according to Christophe - prominently, while 'Harp Odyssey' takes its name from ARP's early 70s Odyssey synth.
Not everything was worth bringing to light. There's a preponderance of mid-paced rock plodding and, the absolute pits, 'L'Italiano', an aggressive piss-take of melodramatic Italian pop balladry. Although it could be viewed charitably as Christophe wrestling with (or choking on, which is what it sounds like) his Italian heritage, that hardly makes it any less tortuous. But there's a sodium lamp-lit beauty of a mini-album to be prized out of Paradis Retrouvé. Opener 'Silence On Meurt' ('Quiet, We're Dying' as opposed to 'silence on tourne' – ‘quiet on set’) is immediately disorientating, a collage of sound-scraps and snippets of French-dubbed dialogue from Sunset Boulevard, which then goes on to deliver a late-night feast of synth arpeggios, sax, drum machine fills and pulsing bass. 'Take A Night' starts with picked guitar that sounds deliciously tape-warped, then punches in with phased guitar stabs in the chorus. The delayed vocals are also gorgeous.
Later on, 'Carrie' is full-tilt, Sissy Spacek-inspired electro-pop, 'Harp Odyssey' is a stomping synth workout and 'Hommage À Jean-Michel Desjeunes' (Desjeunes was a journalist of Christophe's acquaintance at the time of the recording) is a slow electro-blues that could be Suicide-inspired. It's not unlikely - Suicide's electronic reset of rock n roll left its mark in France, Alan Vega had a genuine radio hit there with 'Jukebox Babe' and Christophe, who has actually worked with both Vega and Martin Rev, described the former as "mon idole" in a 1996 interview with French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. On 'Hommage...', the French former idol adds his own touches though, like a couple of incongruous and decidedly demonic fiddle solos. Christophe himself sounds angelic, though, as he generally does, except when he's gargling the Italian language.
This is now a third mention in these columns for Murailles Music (the French label) and Thomas Bonvalet, aka L'Ocelle Mare, but it's going to be unavoidable for as long as they keep coming up with the goods. This month, Murailles is putting out the new album by Powerdove. The band, centred on Minnesota singer and songwriter Annie Lewandowski, has a shifting line-up, but for Do You Burn? she's joined by Bonvalet and Deerhoof's John Dieterich.
Not everything on Do You Burn? is as fidgety as 'Under Awnings', but it gives a good measure of the album's live feel and the way songs can be cracked open by noise, or leave lone elements hanging in space. What's interesting in Bonvalet's case (if his contributions are the ones I think they are) is how he's put the more abstract noise generation of L'Ocelle Mare at the service of some sweet and melancholy songs; he's not always in total sympathy with the tunes – sometimes he's needling and hobbling them, almost testing their resistance and emotional veracity. 'Fellow' begins with just feedback and microphone scrapes (or something being scraped near a microphone) that persist throughout, and the brief 'Flapping Wings' starts, jarringly, with a rattling noise that is perhaps meant to evoke the song's title. The latter also comes across – rhythmically, in Lewandowski's distracted vocals, the repetitive melody, the unchanging chord, a kind of restless stasis just on the brink of epiphany – like a folkier AC Marias.
Do You Burn? may deploy bucolic imagery ('Alder Tree', 'Out On The Water', 'Flapping Wings') but, thanks to the imaginative playing and the intimacy of the recording, it rarely feels serene. And the way Lewandowski sings, it's as though she's never 100% 'in' the song, her troubled thoughts roaming elsewhere.