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Album Of The Week

Hungry Ghosts: Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier's Corpse Flower
Jeremy Allen , September 12th, 2019 07:41

A collaboration between two titans provides plenty of revelations, finds Jeremy Allen

The idea of the band isn’t dead exactly, but the need for them is diminishing. The assumption that everyone has to be in the same room to collaborate is beginning to look superannuated and very much of the last century. Overdubbing has been possible for nearly 100 years, but file sharing and exchanging ideas electronically from different postcodes is relatively new, and more and more acts I interview seem to exist in different countries or continents, creating work together in cyberspace whilst being many miles apart. The situation has precipitated more freedom and adaptability, and further excuse to hide away in one’s room without ever having to converse with another soul in reality.

The fact that legendary rock iconoclasts Mike Patton and Jean-Claude Vannier have made an album together in this way whilst enjoying a long distance bromance seems more difficult to get one’s head around somehow. Patton and Vannier not only have the Atlantic between them, but they seem to have come from across the decades, and from different musical cultures and milieus. They are two titans of their arcane domains for sure, but the undergrounds they rule over are within very different terrains.

Not only that, but Corpse Flower is a production of some magnitude, featuring a band (under Patton’s direction in L.A.) and an orchestra (directed by Vannier in Paris). It’s a big, sonorous, unearthly offering, and it’s difficult to imagine it being created separately by two men, with cut and paste and some incredibly deft stitching. How they’ve managed to bring this Frankenstein’s monster together as a coherent work is testament to a modern friendship by two brilliant musicians using up-to-date technology which, in the case of Vannier, may have come as a surprise but really shouldn’t. He’s been working in the shadows for five decades making French pop music better, and the fact he’s adaptable and au fait with computer software is more feasible than him not being (even if he’s seen the best side of 70).

The pair met when they were both involved in a Serge Gainsbourg tribute at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011. By their own admissions, once they’d decided to work together It took some time to figure out their modus operandi - with submission playing its part. “I'm a dense guy and he's a sparse guy,” Mike Patton said of the project recently. “I wouldn't say we sparred over it but it was definitely something we had to think about.” Patton yielded to Vannier’s creative vision and then brought his own interpretations to the table.

The announcement of the collaboration might have seemed like a marriage made in musical heaven when it was announced, but obstinacy could have scuppered the project before it had even begun. Indeed, there may be no better example of Patton ceding control during his career - certainly not since The Real Thing – which was already half made when he jumped on board Faith No More’s tour bus some 30 years ago. There’s no capitulation here, but Patton has wisely taken a step back, allowing Vannier to present ideas and arrangements and then bend them towards his will as producer.

About half of the songs, including ‘Chansons d’amours’, ‘Browning’ and ‘Pink and Bleue‘, came from Vannier’s harddrive, with the baroque ballad ‘Insolubles’ a revival of a recording he made in 2014 on his solo album Salades de filles with the original lyric by Ariane Bomsel. Patton is credited as an interpreter on all of these tracks, having turned them into decadent chansons he can sing, albeit keeping some of the key French words intact in order to retain the original hooks. Their decision to make an album proverbially without borders (“a global nomad going to all these different places and using different languages,” according to Patton) means that not only was nothing out of bounds, but that they could plunder half finished music from throughout Jean-Claude’s career, upholstering fragments from the distant past and writing complete songs anew as well. Patton says some of the work stretches as far back as the 70s though Vannier will not be drawn on what comes from where.

One of the most captivating tracks, ‘Hungry Ghosts’, was built around an operatic part sung by the late Anne Germain, a jazz chanteuse who had provided vocals for Vannier over the years for some of his more commercial work. Most notably, Germain provided Catherine Deneuve’s vocal parts in Jacques Demy’s celebrated second nouvelle vague opera, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, written closely with the composer Michel LeGrand. Like so much of this record, it’s woven together expertly with the seams deliberately showing, to invoke the Frankensteinian spirit in which it was made.

Oscar Wilde is invoked too on the opener ‘Ballade C 33’, adapted from the Irish writer’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, musically dramatising lines like: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves...” When I interviewed Vannier earlier in the year for a book I’m currently writing, he talked of his great love for Wilde, and told me of his delight when he’d stayed at the Cadogan Hotel in the late 60s around the time he was first introduced to Serge Gainsbourg. “It was very desolate at the time and very cheap to stay at. And I loved that hotel as it was the last place that Oscar Wilde was in before going to jail.” The inclusion of his work within Vannier’s own work is, you suspect, an ambition realised. The opener, despite its adoption of Wilde’s words, is perhaps the least adventurous track on the album musically, a kind of barroom blues jam with harpsichord and harmonicas with Patton’s spoken word strewn over the top, and it mirrors too the penultimate track, A School Girl’s Day, which provides a twist but little else in the way of inspiration. Thankfully there are plenty of revelations elsewhere.

There’s a blues-base embedded into many of these songs, but it’s a mutant blues, and Vannier’s otherworldly orchestral flourishes create a sense of disquiet and, more often than not, awe, as exemplified on ‘Camion’, a song decorated with jaw-dropping, exquisite, inimitable moments from the strings. It’s a happy relationship between the straightforward and the strange, and between the familiar and the mind-bendingly new, which is also a feature of the first single ‘On Top Of The World’. It makes it difficult to put a specific time on when these songs were conceived or performed, or whether they’ve been exhumed from previous eras and re-presented to the world with plenty of extra dressing.

While there was an intention to make it a record with no borders, the power struggle between American and European sensibilities feels a little inevitable. ‘Ballade C 33’, ‘Browning’ and ‘Yard Bull’ could be soundtracks to western pictures, while ‘Chansons d’amours’ and ‘Insolubles’ immerse themselves in the kind of dramatic European camp that Scott Walker thrived on in the early part of his solo career.

There are some moments where they succeed in throwing the compass off though: ‘Cold Sun Warm Beer’, arranged by Patton, really does sound as though it could have come from anywhere, and in particular, outer space. It’s perhaps the hardest song to love, but its onerousness becomes a challenge that’s oddly addictive. It continues to repel you but if you’re not careful, it will also get stuck in your head and bring you down from the inside. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The surrealism is also manifest in the title track, which exists as an inventory of comestibles (“rump roast... porchetta… lardon… escalope...” etc) recited in an exaggerated Italian accent as a string ensemble swaggers, punctuated by the cartoon boing of a timpani drum at the end of the verses. These are the kinds of phantasmagorical ideas that need to be dredged up in seclusion, and then subtly introduced to the process. Only mad men would approve them when sat in the same room together looking at each other cold, naked eye to cold, naked eye. Corpse Flower presents a very strong case for working together alone.