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Débile Thing: A Rockfort Column For May
David McKenna , May 20th, 2016 10:04

David McKenna contemplates the not-so-dumb Baron Retif & Concepcion Perez, Heimat’s freak factor, the internet-age R&B of Le Vasco and more, and rounds up the latest French releases with a new mix

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Baron Retif & Concepcion Perez – Navette
(Musique Large)

At a recent La Souterraine night at La Villette, the contemporary arts and science village on Paris’s north-eastern rim, I shared a table with jazz pianist Florian Pellissier while he devoured a pizza and recounted his first encounter with Benjamin Fain-Robert and Pierre Valero, the drummer and keyboard player who perform together as Baron Retif & Concepcion Perez. “I sent them a long message to say thank you. They were doing something I’d had in mind for a long time and hadn’t figured out how to achieve. And now I didn’t have to because they’d done it for me.” While we’re talking, the pair have discreetly returned to the stage of La Petite Halle for their second set of the evening, and when Pellissier realises how seamlessly they’ve segued from the preceding DJ mix, he’s delighted – “Those guys…!” He goes on to describe their music as “débile”, which means dumb, and which therefore doesn’t sound like much of compliment. But what he’s getting at is the air of playful, childish stoopidity. It’s a fiendish trick of course - it takes considerable skill to sound ‘dumb’ like this and still have it all hold together. Fain-Roberts’s playing draws on the J Dilla school of unquantised beatmaking, except he’s playing it for real, rigidly swinging, while Valero’s spurts and squirts are always dialled in to the wayward groove.

After a detour via Heavenly Sweetness (also Pellissier’s label, on which he released the most recent and superb album with his quintet in March, Cap de Bonne Espérance) for a mini-album, but have now found their way back to Fulgeance’s Musique Large for their first long player. It contains a couple of their most upbeat workouts to date (‘Navettes’ and ‘ML Disco Club’), a collaboration with rapper Coeff that also features esophagus-massaging bass (‘Kamoulox’) and a yearning R&B with Napoleon Maddox for ‘The Crave’. But the essence of the duo is perfectly intact, nowhere more so than on the lurching, loping ‘Gazoduc’ or the self-explanatory ‘Flexible Funk’, both of which are as delightfully débile as they come.

Heimat – S/T
(Teenage Menopause) &
Accident Du Travail – Très Précieux Sang
(Trilogy Tapes)

One of several French labels finding riches in the spaces where garage rock, cold wave and psychedelia overlap, Teenage Menopause has already provided a home for the likes of JC Satan, recent DFA signings Essaie Pas. Even in that company, Heimat’s debut album has a genuine freak factor. It’s the bruised fruit of a collaboration between Olivier Demeaux, member of stalwart garage weirdos Cheveu, and Armelle Oberle, also of The Dreams and Badaboum. Oberle spends much of her time chanting, rapping and crooning in German so the majority is lost on me, but even when she sings in Italian, a language I do understand, on ‘Pompei’, I can’t really make out much anyway. This is all to the good, as Heimat thrive on their ritual power and authority in the sound of Oberle’s voice more than particularities of language.

At its straightest, this still feels like it could be the work of any number of early 80s electronically-inclined obscurities, but it frequently aims higher, shaping blocks of synth and indeterminately sourced samples – various ancient cultures are clashing here, or so it seems – into fascinating ziggurats. ‘Wieder Ja!’, ‘Pompei’ and ‘Afrikastan’ are strange monuments I could stare at all day.

Olivier Demeaux has also cropped up again in another occasional duo, Accident De Travail (they haven’t produced anything since 2010), this time with Julie Pierrejean, who also responds to the name Julie Normal and plays ondes Martenot, while Demeaux limits himself to a small church organ.

One completely non-definitive way I have of addressing drone compositions and performances is to imagine them on a scale running from the heavenly to the infernal, via the earthly and the purgatorial. Each has its merits – heavenly ecstasy is great for a while but also over-bright and featureless, with the prospect of spotless eternity becoming pretty terrifying in its own way. Très Précieux Sang’ is somewhere between earthly and purgatorial, with its shades of folk drone and its shifts into abyssal anxiety. The sudden queasy ascents on ‘Le Noir Pays’ give me the genuine fear, but then the regular scrapes and clicks you hear of the performance in action also give you regular reality checks, bringing the scale back to something more intimate and relatable.

Le Vasco – We’re Not Natural Anymore :’(
(Nowadays)

At the beginning of the year, I sent a mail-out suggesting – speculating, more than anything – that the contours of a new FR FTR RNB (ie French Future R&B) scene were becoming discernible. It was based on pretty minimal evidence – the discovery of OK Lou, a message asking me if I’d heard of Ta-Ha, a couple of tracks by Bonnie Banane and the return of Le Vasco with ‘Neon Blue’, the first track from their We’re Not Natural Anymore EP. Not too long afterwards, Noisey France published an article claiming that France was experiencing a new golden age of R&B – look, I’m a goddamn prophet, that’s what I’m saying! In truth, I’m so rarely ahead of the curve that it’s reassuring to know that my one dodgy antenna does occasionally pick up some useful information from the inter-ether. And even then I wondered whether counting Le Vasco as evidence for my case may have been stretching it a little (no mention was made of them in the article). From the beginning they’ve been an anomaly, a group pulling in 18 directions at once in a bid to articulate a fragmentary contemporary identity.

For this new EP, they’ve rounded out the sound, and each track goes through fewer contortions, but the essence remains. It does share some traits with the acts mentioned above, the virtual-kitsch tropes that are like a warmer, less radically depopulated slant on vaporwave - ‘Easy Online’ begins with a swimmy recording of an airport flight announcement for example. That sums up what’s at stake for the EP as a whole, right down to that emoticon at the end of the EP title, the question of what happens to our dreams and fantasy lives when we’re constantly wired. Those stakes are highest on ‘Easy Online’ (“I come more easily, easy online… I dream more easily, easy online”) which has the effrontery to present itself as a kind of generational anthem or elegy.

I expect some might experience this as over-literalness, a Public Service Broadcasting-ification of richer texts, but all I hear is a series of genuine and moving attempts to find an expression in pop music terms for modern, hyper-layered experiences. If only every band’s struggles, strengths and flaws were so compelling.

Mocke – St Homard
(Objet Disque)

You wouldn’t quite class Mocke as an experimental guitarist, but he’s not technically straight either. He’ll draw you a pretty pencil sketch in a lined notebook, then almost immediately scratch some lines through it, scribble all over it, distract you with another doodle in a corner of the page or accidentally-on-purpose spill wine over the whole thing. And you wouldn’t exactly call Mocke a jazz guitarist, but he can be pretty jazzy at times. This neither/nor-ness is his speciality, a messy elegance that finds perhaps its fullest expression so far on St Homard.

Mocke was the long-term guitarist in the undervalued Holden and a guest on albums by Françoiz Breut and Silvain Vanot, and since time was called on the former he’s been cropping in projects including Arlt and Midget. This is his second solo album, and the sketch metaphor is more appropriate to the first, 2014’s L’Anguille, which collected various musical jottings of a more or less elaborate nature, whereas this seems to have been conceived more deliberately as a unified ensemble piece.

The title means ‘St Lobster’, which chimes beautifully with the briny roughness and littoral haziness on display – the jaunty ‘Gardons-Nous De Critiquer Jean Autrui’ could soundtrack a brisk bike ride interrupted by the discovery of seaweed tangled up in the wheel spokes. Sonically, it’s as restless as ever, with Mocke regularly taking each track through different textural ‘rooms’ (different grades of background hiss will flicker in and out) and jump cuts, giving the feel like of a Nouvelle Vague-y montage.

Charlotte & Magon – Power In
(Echo Orange)

French Charlotte and Israeli Magon have been an item, musically and amorously, for over half a decade now, having originally met on the internet in the heady heyday of Myspace. The first musical product of their meeting, the Love Happening album, was genuinely touching – what should have felt like a night out with an overly touchy-feely couple was actually warm and welcoming, all gossamer 70s MOR, with keyboards and fluid bass recalling Air and Sebastien Tellier’s appropriation of vintage porn soundtracks, though without the latter’s archness. Last year’s Egg Dance EP seems to have heralded a fresh burst of energy. It sounded like they were treating their independence as a gift, an opportunity to conjure up bright fancies in their private laboratory. Production was the aspect that had developed most markedly, more detailed and more spacious than before. And while I narrowly preferred Egg Dance’s disco-in-a-hall-of-mirrors sound, Power In is still a great deal of fun. Here the gamut runs from the cutesy new wave of ‘Aliens’ to the momentary luxuriation in self-pity that is ‘What If The World’ (“what if the world was on my side”). On ‘We Are The Thunder’, Magon takes a moment to ask “Can you feel it?”, to which Charlotte responds, giddily “It’s excellent.” I get the feeling that spirit will keep spilling over into future releases.

Rockfort Quietus Mix 2 – May 2016 Tracklist

Mocke – ‘Ay Perdon Perdon’ (Objet Disque)
Florian Pellissier Quintet – ‘Comète’ (Heavenly Sweetness)
Baron Rétif & Concepcion Perez feat COEFF – ‘Kamoulox’ (Musique Large)
Accident Du Travail – ‘Mariage’ (Trilogy Tapes)
Titus D’Enfer – ‘Les Internautes Veulent Envoyer Justin En Corée Du Nord’ (Fin De Siècle)
Rendez-Vous – ‘Euroshima’ (Avant!)
Heimat – ‘Pompei’ (Teenage Menopause)
JiFlure – ‘Extrait 4’ (Editions Gravats)
OISEAUX-TEMPÊTE – ‘Eclipse & Sirocco’ (Sub Rosa)
Roger West – ‘Aji’ (In Paradisum)
Le Vasco – ‘Easy Online’ (Nowadays)
Charlotte & Magon – ‘Back In Time’ (Echo Orange)

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