Rockfort! French Music For July Reviewed By David McKenna

In his latest French music column, David McKenna gets reacquainted with nouvelle nouvelle chanson singer Mathieu Boogaerts, visits producer NSDOS’s Micro Club and finds energy in the young French jazz scene to rival that in the UK. Home page photograph: Edredon Sensible

I’ve gone full circle in many ways with French singer-songwriters of a certain generation like Mathieu Boogaerts. When I arrived in Paris in the early 2000s, he and others of the nouvelle nouvelle chanson generation seemed the epitome of an insouciant French, bohemian cool that I had fantasised about. I then rejected him for pretty much the same reason, as one of a bunch of overly polite, literate songwriters with no real bite, more focused on witty couplets and exercices de style than musical innovation, frequently dabbling in paper-light ‘Freggae’, as Jeremy Allen calls the style in his recent Gainsbourg book Relax Baby Be Cool (I’ve previously employed the term ‘reggae bobo’ – ‘boho’ reggae – and I’m not entirely sure whether I coined it or I heard it somewhere).

I’ve since come around again to the breezy melancholy and deceptive simplicity of Boogaerts’ work, as well as his highly developed sense of the absurd. Boogaerts has been a London resident for a little while now, and on En Anglaise has written his first album in English. There’s a genuine pleasure in hearing him employ the language as someone still learning, in the manner of a learner in fact, and incorporating it into his songwriting, singing on ‘Am I Crazy’, “I like the blue sky and the sea, I like I do, I like this tree” like he’s delivering a short homework assignment. The arrangements are sparse and have a muted, jazzy feel, as though Boogaerts is singing just for you, just a little the worse for wear, in the corner of a near-deserted café. Hmm, maybe I’m missing France, or at least a certain idea of it.

A track from En Anglais is in the latest Rockfort mix which, in addition to music from the releases below, takes in tracks from Nil Hartman, whose engaging take on techno is produced in real time using text commands in a programming language; one from the new album by Franco-American duo Powerdove (the French half, Thomas Bonvalet, has a new album on the way that I’ll be covering next time); an Anglo-French collaboration between Parisian Bambounou and Bristolian Bruce; a cut from technically dazzling young rapper Luv Resval; something from Oiseaux-Tempête and Foudre member Frédéric D. Oberland’s richly rewarding third solo album Même Soleil and the narcotic rock haze of Lila EhjÄ, winding up with a piece from a new EP of unreleased tracks from guitarist/ composer Mock’s archives, Faces Béates on Brussels label Hinah.

Versatile label boss Gilb’R, aka Gilbert Cohen cut his teeth working at Radio Nova (the eclectic station set up by French journalist Jean-François Bizot) and then as part of electronic duo Chateau Flight with I:Cube. The latter has been a mainstay of Versatile over its 25-year existence, alongside artists like Zombie Zombie and Etienne Jaumet and early releases from Acid Arab, Joakim and The Maghreban. The label has also served to highlight Cohen’s open-ended musical vision of electronic, one that has taken in Jonathan Fitoussi and Clemens Hourrière’s Buchla synth explorations, the surreal soundscapes and spoken word of John Cravache and one of this year’s gems in the form of a collaboration between Emmanuelle Parrenin and Detlef Weinrich. But in all this time, it hadn’t yet put out a full solo release from Cohen himself.

With a title like On Danse Comme Des Fous – translates as ‘we dance like crazy’ or ‘like crazy people’ – you might expect it to be full of full-on dancefloor anthems. The reality is more sedate but also more intriguing; the ten tracks are dancey but aren’t always danceable – you’d struggle not to trip over yourself moving to the intro for ‘Changa’. Each track is rich with ideas, unusual juxtapositions, sonic tweaks and shifting rhythms but Cohen, veteran that he is, keeps them lean and sinuous without over-finessing. There’s a sense of spontaneity, freedom and humour that runs through ‘Reaching’, which toys with drum & bass beats, the beatless bloops of ‘Super Spreader’, a collaboration with I:Cube, and the dubby clatter and rumble of ‘Я не хочу знать_’ which features Zombie Zombie’s Cosmic Neman. It’s been worth the wait.

Zuukou Mayzie’s laid back, purring tone belies the relentless pace with which he releases new material. No sooner had last year’s Primera Temporada, a compilation rounding up a year’s worth of single releases, been released than he dropped the hard-hitting ‘Be Water ;)’; the same has happened with Segunda Temporada, the ‘tercera’ phase presumably being launched by ‘Hyyerr’. Mayzie – real name Youssouf Sy – is the member of the 667 collective (which also includes Lala and Freeze Corleone) who produces some of the most broadly appealing, pop-oriented tracks, happy to roll with trap and drill beats but also at home with the Europop of ‘Pourquoi Pas’, featuring Timothée Joly. I could have lived without ‘Skr Skr’, a collaboration with sappy synth pop duo The Pirouettes but otherwise the eclecticism and the inventive, springy rhythms, are as welcome as before. The colour and playfulness are there again in Mayzie’s referencing of some of his screen favourites, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (‘Spike’), The Fifth Element and Kill Bill, and ‘PéPé Anglais’ sees him and Freeze Corleone turning their attention to Sherlock Holmes, Jaguars, Astons, the Queen and English grandpas. But most surprising of all is the lush, Spirited Away-referencing fantasia ‘Haku’, a mini-epic in two or three movements, laced with daydreamy guitar and flute-y, video game synths.

For obvious reasons, NSDOS – producer, dancer and video artist Kirikoo Des – found himself recording most of his latest album, Micro Club, shooting videos and taking selfies (one of which was fed through AI software to produce the sleeve) in the bathroom of his flat, which reminded him of some of the more intimate club spaces in Berlin. The title track and ‘Crashing The Box’ (boîte in French is literally a box but is also used to refer to a club) accentuate the sense of claustrophobia and the ascetic vibe of tracks from a producer who has previously drawn inspiration from the wilds of Alaska and the botanical gardens of the Villa Medicis in Rome. But there’s always been the sense that he’ll make music with whatever he has at his disposal – using a hacked tattoo gun, for example – and so it has proved with COVID-imposed restrictions. There’s no build-up or intro to ‘Minimal Risk’, the opener – it’s straight in with a pulverising 4/4 kick, whirling hi-hats and metallic kind-of snares like metal bars being bashed against each other. ‘Automation De L’Amour’ introduces glimmering shards of melody and distorted bass. The crunching sound is thrillingly immediate and although part of the pleasure of Micro Club is in its narrow, obsessive focus there is variety here, such as the unexpected tribute to the UK bleep techno sound on ‘Fais-Moi La Paix’.

Long-time readers will be aware of my affection for producer Hypo aka Anthony Keyeux, whether in his solo guise or as duo with EDH, for the way his quirky, jerry-rigged takes on pop and electronic music styles are always suffused with deep melancholy as well as joy. Hypo’s world, one in which Asian pop, cold wave, easy listening, lo-fi and glitch have coalesced into a singular but hauntingly, emotionally diffuse aesthetic.

Even without EDH, Keyeux’s albums usually feature a cast of collaborators; this time, with the exception of Hypo regular Kumisolo, Emo Erectus is as close to solo as he’s been for a while. But it’s also a more muscular affair than usual, given extra heft by producer DEF, who has worked with the likes of Diamanda Galas and Balkan Beat Box. While there’s still something delightfully vague about ‘Charkie’, it builds impressively to a point of climax/collapse where rippling piano and Kumisolo’s haunting flute circle each other and the beat starts to fold in on itself. On ‘Faire Et Défaire’ and ‘Slowdown’, the hip hop or electro-based beats are satisfyingly chunky vehicles for hymnal half-melodies, and the brief ‘Déjàvu83’ isn’t shy about its disco-punk inspirations but has a genuine spring in its step. And maybe it’s just my imagination but, given Hypo’s penchant for skewed homages, it is possible that ‘Pianobar’ is a pretty spot on Felicia Atkinson pastiche.

The London scene isn’t the only example of a youthful exuberance and freedom breathing new life into jazz. France too has acts like Neue Grafik, No Tongues and Bada-Bada, and these two superb but very different groups. NCY Milky Band are part of the consistently impressive Black Milk Music stable and ‘Magic Polo’, the first track on their Burn’IN album picks up the spongy sound they had established on Our Gurus, with its takes on everyone from Dorothy Ashby to Boards of Canada. The difference this time round, on what they consider their proper debut, is that these are all self-composed tracks but Burn’IN is an equally, instantly delightful record. Its composition, playing and attention to ear-pleasingly gloopy sonic detail all come together in the infectiously bouncy title track, the enjoyably goofy vocals of ‘Politricks’, the pacy ‘Gotham’ with its hints of Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, the rapid stylistic jump-cuts of ‘Young Fiasco’ (leaping from J Dilla to John Carpenter), and the sax and reverb-swamped drums of ballad ‘Love Alert’.

It’s clear from the feral screeching that opens their Vloute Panthère album that Edredon Sensible are a far spicier proposition. The band features two drummers/ percussionists hammering out their own takes on Moroccan, Brazilian and Afro-Latin rhythms, and two saxophonists who supplement the cries of their instruments with some throat-splitting vocal extemporisation. They favour wild, trancey grooves that grow out of the repetition of motifs of usually just two or three notes, with one saxophonist going low to ground the groove, the other higher and freer, and the steadily mounting ferocity of the twin-drum assault. Picking highlights is tough but the sustained ten minutes of intensity of ‘Just A Lovely Walk In The Sky’ is hugely impressive, and ‘Roli Poli Oli, Mini Malin Tout Rond’ is a (relatively) sedate finale that still reaches a shuddering climax.

Also surrendering to trance-like states is Jean-François Riffaud, recording as Rifo on the Betel album from the Carton and Coax labels, which both deal in experimental and frequently jazz-adjacent music. Apparently using only an electric guitar, Riffaud applies damping and muting techniques to produce knobbly, clicky rhythms, releasing pressure on the strings to open up the sound. On ‘Teeth’ this shifts into scraping as well, unleashing a sudden a flurry of animalistic noise – from moment to moment it could be the clamour of dogs barking and growling, cackling chickens or excited chimps. The blurb makes reference to the Betel being like a “very old… pneumatic, pre-synthetic music” and there is something to that – ‘Leaf’ is like a Neu! track made with hand-cranked machinery, while the eerie, wavering tones of ‘Smile’ feel like an experiment from the dawn of recording.

You may have come across Jac Berrocal before – one of the key figures of the 70s French underground who is still going strong and bouncing from collaboration to collaboration. The vocalist and trumpet player’s latest foils on Fallen Chrome are Riverdog, the Franco-American, Minneapolis-based duo of Léo Remke Rochard and Jack Dzik. The latter, with Remke Rochard on electronics and vocals, Dzik on drums and percussion, operate in a space Berrocal is very much at home in, where avant-rock and jazz meet; on ‘Strange Song’ a chunky rock beat conveys you through hissing noise, what sounds like a baby squealing, sirens and Berrocal’s possessed vocals, while on ‘À La Frontière’, Berrocal’s trumpet roves around a looser piece, held down by Dzik’s tumbling fills. ‘Sang Facile – Prière’ is stunning – a techno pulse is deepened by brush strokes and metallic rattling, Berrocal wailing wordlessly and playing trumpet as though the two were interchangeable, and then capping it off with a gargoyle-voiced recital of Antonin Artaud’s poem ‘Prière’.

Quietus Mix 27

Edredon Sensible – ‘String Et Bermuda’ (Les Productions du Vendredi)
NCY Milky Band – ‘Young Fiasco’ (BMM Records)
Gilb’R – ‘Я не хочу знать_’ (Versatile)
Bambounou x Bruce – ‘Final Conference’ (Bambe)
NSDOS – ‘Fais-Moi La Paix’ (Upton Park)
Nil Hartman – ‘Clical’ (Self-Released)
Zuukou Mayzie – ‘Survet Bayern Doc’ (667/Jeune À Jamais)
Luv Resval – ‘Picsou’ (AWA/Sony Music France)
Powerdove – ‘Bells And Glass’ (Murailles Music)
Rifo – ‘Teeth’ (Carton Records/Collectif Coax)
Jac Berrocal & Riverdogs – ‘Strange Song’ (Nato)
Lila Ehjä – ‘Troubles’ (Self-Released)
Frédéric D. Oberland – ‘En Cercle Immergé’ (IIKKI)
Hypo – ‘Poupou38’ (Powdered Hearts)

Mathieu Boogaerts – ‘The Price’ (Tôt Ou Tard)
Mocke – ‘Lou Le Loup’ (Hinah)

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