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Rockfort! French Music For June Reviewed By David McKenna
David McKenna , June 30th, 2020 07:05

David McKenna flags up some French compilations released in response to the Covid-19 crisis and reviews new music from Felicia Atkinson, Franco-Senegalese rapper Zuukou Mayzie and the final album from Black Devil Disco Club

Welcome to the second Rockfort column of the Covid-19 era, ideally a welcome distraction for myself (and for you too) from the sense of impending doom as the UK’s lockdown restrictions are loosened precipitously.

In truth, though, that kind of compartmentalisation is impossible - it is the fate of much music being released at the moment to be freighted with new layers of meaning, sometimes, but not always, in spite of itself.

So I’d like to start by flagging up some releases, compilations and videos from France that have sprung up specifically in response to the crisis.

The mix with this column features a couple – the pulsating techno pop of Agar Agar’s ‘Nap’, one of their best tunes to date, is from a two-track thingy recorded during lockdown, while NSDOS’s ‘Micro Club’ is one of several new productions with titles alluding to the current context (along with ‘Minimal Risk’ and ‘Crashing The Box’.)

Also on there is something from producer Nebulo (aka Thomas Pujols)’s excellent Parallaxes album, and the title track from the Sécheresse EP by No Mercury (former Underground Railroad member Raphael Mura).

Some enterprising folk in the French commune of Sommières - in the Occitanie region of Southern France, a little way from Montpellier – have been putting together a series of Bandcamp compilations, Pump Up The Volume, to support local foodbanks. A couple of volumes have rapidly become eight, turning them into a serious survey of the French underground. Previously unreleased or freshly recorded music, in all manner of styles, comes from the likes of Klimperei, David Fenech, Dylan Municipal, Arlt’s Sing Sing, Didier Super, Pascal Comelade (more from him below), Stranded Horse, La Chatte and many more.

Meanwhile, Pierre Chandeze’s proteiform project With A Messy Head has been calling on fellow musicians to record music at home with the most simple device available to them and no overdubs.

Also proving to be a real treasure trove is the series from label and live agency Murailles Music. Again focusing on new, unreleased and home-recorded offerings and conceived as a passing of the baton from artist to artist, it has (at the time of writing) completed its third cycle of nine tracks, with each corresponding to a letter of its title – CONFINUUM (‘confinement’ combined with ‘continuum’). The mouth-watering line-up includes favourites of this column like Sourdure, Léonore Boulanger & Jean-Daniel Botta, Loup Uberto, Marion Cousin (more below on her too), EloÏse Decazes, as well as Canadian troubadour Eric Chenaux and Paris-based Spaniard Borja Flames.

The InFiné label’s Music Activists 2020 (From Home) also has sterling contributions from its international roster, and includes a fine return from Bernard Szajner (with the aptly and succinctly titles ‘Nightmare’), Léonie Pernet’s glistening ‘Digital Hope’ and a lovely piece from cellist Gaspar Claus, as well as Tunisian Deena Abdelwahed’s ominous ‘Dramaserge’ and an uplifting contribution from Carl Craig.

And to round up this special socially distanced selection, you could do a lot worse than to check out the charmingly titles Boiler Merde sessions, including videos from the likes of Cachette à Branlette and Somaticae aka Amédée De Murcia.

Marion Cousin & Kaumwald - Tu Rabo Par’Abanico
(Les Disques Du Festival Permanent/Le Saule/Big Wax)

No apologies for including producer and multi-instrumentalist Ernest Bergez aka Sourdure in this column once again, this time as half of Kaumwald with Clément Vercelletto (and with whom he also plays in Orgue Agnès). They’ve teamed up with vocalist and seasoned collaborator Marion Cousin. This project is really her baby, part of a series exploring and reimagining traditional songs from various regions of the Iberian peninsula. The beautiful Jo Estava Que M’Abrasava with Gaspar Claus, drawing on repertoire from Mallorca and Menorca, cleaved more closely to what one might imagine to be a ‘traditional’ folk performance style but Tu Rabo Par’Abanico is something else entirely, wonderful and uncategorisable – the melodies and rhythmic bases might come from the Portugal-bordering Extremadura region but the trio turn them over and crack them open, filling the space with samples, splattery electronics and jittery percussion, while Cousin’s coolly understated singing is run through the autotune ringer for ‘Gerineldo’.

Black Devil Disco Club - Lucifer Is A Flower
(Lo Recordings)

Age cannot wither Bernard Fevre - Lucifer Is A Flower, apparently the final Black Devil record, is an unalloyed joy from start to finish. You probably know the BDDC story by now, library composer Fevre producing an analogue space disco classic in 1978 then virtually forgetting about it as its subterranean influence spread through Italo Disco, until it was then rediscovered by Aphex Twin – picked up by an associate at a car boot sale - and reissued on the Rephlex label in 2004. Fevre was inspired to make new music. After the feature-studded Circusfrom 2011 (Afrika Bambataa, Nancy Sinatra, Faris Badwan), 2013’s Black Moon White Sun was a return to solo work. Lucifer Is A Flower has all the hallmarks of Black Devil – chunks of primary-coloured synths, a thumping kick, congas, charmingly effected-but-unaffected vocals, a playful approach to genre (cf the shimmying ‘Bossa Snooze’) and sheer joie de vivre. Where once he anticipated Balearic classics like ‘Sueño Latino’, he now makes music that’s reminiscent of them, but it’s always been by pursuing his own logic and sticking to his guns. And ‘Caresse Un Opossume’, with its squelchy bass and toytown house vamps, also has my favourite song title of the year so far.

Zuukou Mayzie - Primera Temporada
(667/Jeune à Jamais)

Among the members of the Franco-Senegalese 667 crew that features fellow rappers Freeze Corleone, Lala &ce and Slim C, Zuukou Mayzie stands out for his warm, relaxed delivery, cinematic inspirations and a lushness and variety that feels fairly removed from the icy beats of a typical Corleone production. Primera Temporada means ‘Season One’ in Spanish and rounds up series of tracks released over the course of last year. They range from the synth shimmer of ‘Vincent’, ‘Pretty Boy’s hazy R&B, the glistening trap-pop of ‘Cerf Volant’ and even what sounds like a Neptunes tribute on ‘Vesta Patta’. And latest single, the Bruce Lee-quoting ‘Be Water ;)’, (released after the album), proves he can do dark and minimal too, its cold bounce augmented by an ominously warped synth that’s been snipped from a Flume remix of Seekae’s ‘Test & Recognise’.

Grand Veymont - Persistance & Changement
(Objet Disque/Outré)

A stunner here from duo GV (Béatrice Morel Journel and Josselin Varengo) following a self-titled release on Outré last year - 39 minutes and 3 seconds of patiently evolving Kraftwerk/Harmonia keyboards, flute and Béatrice’s gently lilting voice, both adrift and purposeful. ‘Persistence & Changement’ isn’t all sweetness and light either, the tension mounting during its middle section as the synth pulses turn to horror-soundtrack stabs and drums supply additional propulsion until the track finally emerges, blinking, from this tenebrous passage. Its title – persistence and change - refers to the band’s own modus operandi, and apparently to a 60s field recording from the Appalachian Mountains. Coincidentally, it also feels like a motto for the lockdown era.

La Preyra - OR | OS

A further sign that French folk is in rude health, courtesy of the excellent Pagans label (Super Parquet, France, Sourdure). This is the second album from the duo of Béatrice Terrasse, on vocals (plus cello and percussion) and Louis Jacques, who provides the rest of the instrumentation including banjo, bagpipes and organ. Theirs is an austere sound that gradually offers up its modal, melancholy pleasures - frequently Terrasse’s high and lonely voice is accompanied only by circular patterns from Jacques’ banjo - but this restraint bears its fruits in moments like the flurry of arpeggios that suddenly ripple through ‘La Delaissée’; ‘Le Jardin Des Amours’s sinister breaths and muted drone, with Terrasse floating in a pool of natural reverb, and the gorgeous organ arrangement of closer ‘Mâre, Maria Mè C’t An’. There’s awe and dread in these songs - ‘Reveillez-Vous Fidèles Voici Le Temps’ alerts earthly sinners to an “irritated” God’s imminent vengeance – but also the disappointments and pleasures of love (and food - “du vin et du jambon” shared with the subject of ‘Allons Mignonne’).

(Shelter Press)
Kassel Jaeger - Swamps/Things
(Shelter Press)

As well as drawing on visual art and experimental literature, Félicia Atkinson’s work is inspired by, and prompts, contemplation of our inner lives, the organic world around us and, perhaps, the possibility of life without us. Ben Vida’s accompanying blurb talks about “thresholds”, including the space between waking and sleep, but one can help think of the present time as one of those transitional moments too, a period which could give birth to positive, radical change, or accelerate the march towards extinction. The title track begins with a bass tone that crawls through your ear canals and fills your skull, accompanied by Atkinson’s impassive vocals. A little later: “The coming screams of the unborn/ the butterflies and the grains of sand/ there is no reason to talk/ neither to stay silent/ just a strange desire/ and the thirst of water.” Other voices join her among the marimbas, chimes and piano on ‘Transparent In Movement’, occasionally rising in a fuzzy chorus, but they sound distant and drained of their corporeality. Like memories or ghosts.

Also on Atkinson’s Shelter Press is the new release from Kassel Jaeger, the pseudonym of François Bonnet – a composer, teacher, writer, collaborator with the likes of Stephen Mathieu, Lucy Railton and Jin O’Rourke, and director of the GRM (Groupe de Recheches Musicales) in Paris. That makes him something of a torchbearer for the traditions of musique concrete, experimental electronics and electroacoustic exploration in France. Supposedly an “opera without distinct character or text”, the album title refers to a site Bonnet often visited as a child, as well as a tutor who told him he composed ‘swamps’. The point being that while the stereo field is wide and rich, there’s nothing you can quite pin down, and everything is in constant, if slow, motion; shapes looming dimly then evaporating, bird calls (perhaps) muffled by the textural fog and keening of ‘Backwards Valley’. On ‘NYC Bobcats’ things come into focus a little more, with its splashes of guitar-like thrum, and ‘Accalmie (light gaps)’ is peppered with sounds of rattling metal, like a wire fence in high wind.

Yossür & Yoçon - Turbulents
(Musique Muscle)

Love to get an email titled ‘Hi! French weird poetry autotune duo’. I don’t know an awful lot about Yossür & Yoçon, other than that they – Sacha and Thomas - describe themselves as “a couple of lovers” from Tours in the Loire Valley who have been making music together for three years. This tape release is on Belgian label Musique Muscle who, rather as Grand Veymont describe their music as ‘krautock de salon’, release “pop de chambre, ambient de salon, reggae du jardin and techno de salle de bain”. Y&Y’s own pop de chambre is a sweet and sour treat, combining autotuned vocals - frequently in a call-and-response pattern between an angelic higher register and more mournful lower voice – wavering and wobbling synths and rap/R&B rhythms.

Various Artists - BMM Records Vol. 1
(BMM Records)

BMM is a label with a penchant for off-beat jazz, library funk, quirky pop, hip hop and, seemingly, dairy products – the name stands for Black Milk Music and artists on this first label sampler include NCY Milky Band and the UK’s Natural Yogurt Band (whose contribution here, ‘White Spirits’, sounds a bit like Pram with the funk and hip hop influences dialled up). The 11 tracks provide a whistle-stop tour of BMM’s roster, with label mainstays M.A Beat! serving up a new track, the Broadcast-go-country soul ‘Dominos’, NCY Milky Band teaming up with singer-songwriter Léon Evangelion for languid ballad ‘Velvet’, while veteran producer and analogue whizz Domotic fits in perfectly with the Jean-Jacques Perrey-esque ‘Economy Intelligence’. Bring on Vol. 2.

Bribes 4 - Temperatures
(Collectif Coax)

Bribes 4 are (surprise!) a quartet from Paris – or at least they become a quartet when the core duo of Geoffroy Gesser (sax) and Romain Clerc-Renaud (piano) are joined by drummer Yann Joussein and Swedish-born voice improviser Isabel Sörling. Temperatures, their second album, is more tumultuous and freeform than its predecessor – there is neither the almost flamboyant melodicism and steady rock beat of ‘Josie’ or the Robert Wyatt-inspired songcraft of ‘Time To Leave’. This is explained by the fact that it is apparently the recording of a particularly successful rehearsal, and compensated for by the fire here, with Sörling finding novel ways to rub up against the other instruments or channel and provoke their energy. This is best demonstrated on ‘Chaos’, during which she unleashes a torrents of effect-laden wailing and engages in call and response with Gesser. At other moments the band slips briefly into swing rhythm or start to hammer away as if they’re trying to rapidly erect a building.

Pascal Comelade & Marc Hurtado - Larme Secrete

Comelade has of course been a fixture of the French underground since the 70s and was an electronic pioneer before developing his instrumental song style, replete with toy instruments, for which he’s better known. Recently though he’s collaborated with The Limiñanas and here he’s in good company with Hurtado of fraternal duo Étant Données. The latter have worked Michael Gira, Lydia Lunch and Alan Vega, and it is the latter’s long shadow that looms over Larme Secrete, both in Hurtado’s rasping, semi-whispered delivery and the synthesised rock & roll trance of ‘Éclair’ and ‘Eté’. But there’s also space for a little Eastern mystery on ‘Cri’, the more diffuse and dreamy ‘Spirale’ and haunted piano ballad ‘Or’.

Audrey Bizouerne & Neil Davidson - Supermarket Ballads

A lovely one to finish on, a self-released collaboration between French but Glasgow-based Bizouerne and Scottish native Davidson. Bizourne had previously spent time with bands including La Féline and Orval Carlos Sibelius before making the move to Scotland and playing in Rev Magnetic (with Luke Sutherland) and Gift Horse. She describes Supermarket Ballads as “experimental, improvised, very spontaneous and recorded in just two days”. The interplay of the two guitars – acoustic and electric – is both frosty and heart-warming, exploratory but melodious, intricate without being over-fussy, terse but tender.

Quietus Mix 21
Marion Cousin & Kaumwald – ‘Gerineldo’ (Les Disques Du Festival Permanent/Le Saule/Big Wax)
Yossür & Yoçon – ‘Dézétoil’ (Musique Muscle)
Zuukou Mayzie – ‘Be Water ;)’ (667/Jeune à Jamais)
NSDOS – ‘Micro Club’ (Upton Park)
Black Devil Disco Club – ‘Ah Am Alone’ (Lo Recordings)
Agar Agar – ‘Nap’ (Cracki Records)
Nebulo – ‘Dymaxion’ (Le Cabanon)
No Mercury – ‘Sécheresse’ (N/A)
Bribes 4 – ‘Miniatyr’ (Collectif Coax)
Léon Evangelion – ‘Velvet ft NCY Milky Band’ (BMM Records)
Pascal Comelade & Marc Hurtado – ‘Spirale’ (Klanggalerie)
Kassel Jaeger – ‘NYC Bobacats’ (Shelter Press)
La Preyra – ‘Le Jardin Des Amours’ (Pagans)
Audrey Bizouerne & Neil Davidson – ‘Quinze Bohèmes’ (N/A)