Best of 2014 (Part 7)

MusiqueFrancoWhat actually constitutes a “French” song? I thought about this while perusing an article in the French-Canadian blog L’Animateur Culturel! which – correctly – defines a French song as one that is performed in the language of Molière and not – as it is often incorrectly described – a style.

For me – a Francophone Englishman and someone who passionately believes that a great song actually transcends language – a great French song is actually a great song that just happens to be performed in French. Conversely, I’m not just going to love a song just because the artist happens to be performing the song in French… There has to be a certain “je ne sais quoi” in the first place to whet the appetite.

And because I’ve already decided that it’s a great song, whatever the particular genre (be it pop, alt-rock, indie, folk, etc… depending on what is rocking my particular boat) it is always going to stand comparison against any song, irrespective of language…

“La musique en français c’est n’est pas un style de musique. Y’a de tout en français!” (“Music in French is not a style of music. They are all in French!”)

So when it came to selecting a song of the year – which in many respects is actually far easier than choosing an album (you’re looking at one moment of sheer brilliance as opposed to a degree of consistency over a number of tracks) – I was looking for that one moment that not only perfectly encapsulates the artist, but also would stand shoulder to shoulder with any other song in a similar category that was released this year…

201412xx Filles Sourires ArtworkI’d actually got a short-list of three(!), but ultimately – and having long bemoaned the dearth of innovative French (or french-Canadian) indie-rock artists – there can be only one song of the year.

Hôtel Morphée’s “Dernier jour” is a dark and deliciously subversive thumping alt-rock tune; all pounding drums and repetitive bass overlaid with Laurence Newbornne’s gorgeous rasping, sultry vocals… And then the refrain kicks in, the vocals soar, imploring, there’s a ferocity – at times animalistic edginess here… All of a sudden those trademark syncopated rhythms of orchestral strings are centre-stage. The song literally explodes between the ears… and then it’s gone… replaced by silence… the heart is still pounding…

Best of 2014 (Part 4): Stéphanie Lapointe

20141112 Stephanie Lapointe ArtworkIt is safe to say that 2014 has produced a bumper crop of Francophone albums. Many of these have appeared in this very blog and some have even been reviewed by yours truly. Mentally I’m whittling a year’s worth of albums to a top 10… And then Guuz announces that this year we’re going to only nominate one album… just one… our choice for the album of 2014…

So… I’ve thought long and hard about my choice and so with apologies to Hôtel Morphée, Chloé Lacasse, Catherine Leduc and Salomé Leclerc, to name but a few of my top 10 – all of whom are arguably responsible for some of the great albums of this (or any) year. Somehow though I already knew the other nine albums on my list were going to be (very, very) good and I was already anticipating their release. Hopefully someone will nominate them (if not you’ll be able to read about them again elsewhere), but my album of the year has to be the one that not only was I totally unprepared for, but also – and to quote Guuz himself – left me more than a little bit shaken in the process…

Montréalaise singer-actress-author and Unicef ambassador Stéphanie Lapointe released her last album back in 2009. This year she released “Les amours parallèles”, an album that manages to both immediately transport the listener back to les années soixante while at the same time brimming with such timeless quality that the songs here could have been written anytime over the past fifty years. Over ten intimate portraits that describe the many facets of love; good and bad, escape, forgiveness, loss, grief and desire, a brief moment in time has been captured and frozen for all eternity.

Actually if there is an award for team album of the year, then “Les amours parallèles” is the undisputed winner. Already armed with a honey-dripped and mesmerising voice that would be described as nailed-on Fille Fragile, Stéphanie surrounded herself amongst the crème of Québec’s song-writing and composing talent; Philippe B – winner of two Félix at this year’s ADISQ Gala; Jimmy Hunt – GAMIQ award winner and Polaris nominee; award winning poet Kim Doré alongside Émilie Laforest and Joseph Marchand of blog favourites, Forêt, who were also responsible for the album’s production.

From the opening number, the Philippe B composition, “L’oiseau mécanique”, with it’s poignant piano melody and Stéphanie’s voice softly floating above the clouds to the haunting resonance of the English horn on the closing “Nous revenons de loin”, this is an album of terrifying consistency.

The album feels very French – and while it’s not impossible to imagine this album being written and performed in (say) English – it resonates with “Frenchiness” and the echoes of Françoise Hardy, France Gall and Jane Birkin (whose “Pourquoi” has been lovingly reinterpreted here); yet for an album that has a distinctly retro-sixties feel (indeed, even the album artwork harks back to the period), there’s only one song here, “Un jour comme un autre”, that is actually from that era. Originally performed by Brigitte Bardot on her 1964 album “BB”, here the nuances of Stéphanie’s voice perfectly captures the feeling of resignation and despair.

Mention has to be made of the two stunning duets on the album – both written and composed by their respective co-vocalists. The haunting “De mon enfance” is graced by the angelic harmonies of Stéphanie and Philémon Cimon and the only English-language offering, Leif Vollebekk’s “Not a moment too soon”, an incredibly haunting song of sombre and imposing orchestral strings, gentle soothing piano and arresting vocals.

There are also some incredibly thoughtful touches that help bind the songs on this album – heavenly choirs flit in and out of the spotlight, the arrangements – be it strings, piano or acoustic guitar – all perfectly capture the particular mood of a song.

“Les amours parallèles” is a gorgeous concept album that revolves around the theme of love in all of its many guises. It is also nothing short of a masterpiece and deserved of consideration as album of the year 2014.

Hôtel Morphée

Reve americain
The phrase “year-list material” tends to get bandied around a bit (guilty as charged – here’s Exhibit A and Exhibit B), but I make no apologies for suggesting that Montréal-based Hôtel Morphée’s sophomore album “Rêve américain” is a more than worthy addition to the fold.

Whereas the band’s 2013 debut “Des Histoires des Fantômes” was all dark, brooding and Gothic tinged, “Reve américain” has a more pronounce alt-rock edge. Although the menacing undercurrent isn’t far from the surface and there’s the trademark liberal application of orchestral strings, the sound is altogether a more urgent, distorted, guitar-fuelled affair.

The direction the album takes was apparent from the thumping up-tempo “Dernier jour” – the more pronounced rock sound overlaid with violins and Laurence Newbornne’s rasping vocals (which appear to have far more range and expression than on “Des Histoires des Fantômes”) This is further confirmed by the album’s opening track, “Reve américain” – sombre keyboards buried beneath distorted, pounding bass – and some cleverly effects with Auto-Tune on Laurence’s voice as she ever so matter-of-factly addresses dreaming “…that one was killed and that one was missing…”

While the musical direction of the album is a new departure, the band maintain the illusion of expertly wrapping disconcerting lyrics with punchy rhythms – “Psycholove” – a love song for psychopaths, being a case in-point. Indeed the album explores the realities and myths of the American dream, walking as it does the tightrope between reverie and nightmares, exploring themes of love (“Soigne-moi”), sex (“Petite mort”) and violence (“Des milliers de gens”).

All eleven songs here are frighteningly consistent in quality; the reflective “Je reviendrai” is totally structured around Laurence’s auto-tuned and reverbed – almost tremolo vocals; “Tucson” paints a picture as bleak as the city under a burning Arizona sun…

I’ve previously commented that for all the great pop, country and folk albums that the French-Canadian Provinces have produced, the French music scene on this side of the pond desperately needs bands capable of delivering albums that generates the “frisson” that alternative and indie-rock provides.

With “Reve américain”, Hôtel Morphée have delivered this album…


Chez Carla et Nicolas

Concerts by Francophone artists are a rather rare occurrence here in Los Angeles. In the eight years that I’ve lived in the area there’s only been a handful artists who’ve ventured this far west; Keren Ann, Émilie Simon,  Jane Birkin, Coeur de pirate, while just last month, Biarritz’s finest, La Femme, played a small intimate gig. So when it was announced that ex-first lady Carla Bruni was appearing in town this weekend, an opportunity presented itself that I wasn’t going to miss… and given that half the ex-pat French émigrés of Southern California seemed to be in attendance as well, I wasn’t alone in my thinking…

20140426 Carli Bruni Luckman Poster

After a standing ovation for husband Nicolas as he took his seat  (which explained the nervous looking Secret Service types milling around), the house lights slowly dimmed and the dulcet piano of Cyril Barbessol and Taofik Farah’s guitar – both impeccable multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist musicians, who were as  responsible for setting both the scene and creating the ambiance – lead into the opening bars of “Déranger les pierres”; breathless vocals floated over the P.A… and as the song drew to a close, Carla Bruni emerged from the shadows to rapturous applause…

Dressed in a simple outfit comprising a black blouse, black leather jeans, topped with a red tapered velvet jacket and just oozing effortless charm, Ms. Bruni proceeded over the best part of the next two hours to offer us a masterclass in the art of the Chanson. The format was incredibly simple – in her totally disarming accent, Carla would introduce a song, illuminating with a brief story (spoiler alert – most of the songs revolve around the universal themes of love and attraction), tell a joke at the expense of the French Language (“Ta tienne” translated nonsensically as “Your yours…”) and then hold us spelbound.

The concert was billed as “Carla Bruni sings little French songs” (the title of her most recent album). In fact she drew heavily from all three of her French-language albums (Quelqu’un m’a dit”, “Comme si de rien n’était” as well as the aforementioned “Little French Songs”). The night was a cent pour cent celebration of the chanson francaise – even to the degree that Carla introduced her version of Charles Trenet’s “Douce France” (“Dolce Francia”) in the context of a homage from a young girl recently moved from Italy and falling in love with the musical culture and history of her new home.

Carla prefaced “Dolce Francia” with “Little French Songs”, reiterating her love of the Chanson through the words of her song, explaining that while the French language may not have given the world Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong or Elvis (and er, Michael Jackson?), it has given us chanteurs; the likes of Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Georges Brassens and the aforementioned Charles Trenet – songwriters and performers who have all placed an emphasis on lyrical content and rhythm…  And it was to this memory that Carla dedicated, to great applause from those knowledgeable amongst us, a covers Barbara’s “Si le photo est bonne.”

The set was particularly well balanced – a representative mix of slower romantic numbers (“L’Amourouse”, “J’arrive à toi”); up-beat and amusing (“Pas une dame”, Raphael”, “Chez Keith et Anita” and “Mon Raymond” – an ode to hubby Nicolas – although I still can’t quite see him as a pirate); the sad (“Darling” and “Salut marin” – an ode to her half-brother who died from an AIDS-related illness).

Now no evening with Carla Bruni would be complete without arguably her best known song, “Quelqu’un m’a dit”, but the added piano introduction added a still greater poignancy, especially as before we know it, time had flown and the closing number, “La Dernière Minute”, ended almost before it begins (the song as recorded on “Quelqu’un m’a dit” lasts exactly one minute – Carla thoughtfully sang it through twice – adding, that if she has one last wish, she’s ask for another minute… and another…)

Myself? For my wish I was transported for the evening from LA to Paris; and La Pigalle, I’Île Saint-Louis and Les Tuileries of Carla’s Little French songs…

Chloé Lacasse

(Steve J is now an official author of FillesSourires! Hooray!)

Back in 2011 I stumbled across the eponymous debut album from that year’s Francouvertes winner Chloé Lacasse, an album that managed to seamlessly encompass rock, pop, tender ballads and even threw-in a few Bristollian trip-hop beats – and in “Tout va bien” featured one killer of a contender for song of the year… Fast forward to 2014 and the release of “Lunes”, the theoretically oh-so-difficult sophomore album…
If her debut album seemed to touch all musical bases, “Lunes” sees Chloé focused on a more adult and mature, thoughtful sound. Gone is the “turn the volume up all the way to eleven” – this time it’s those pure and crystalline vocals that were hinted at previously which take centre-stage – the music complements rather than competes for attention. Moreover the clever use of percussion, strings, keyboards – even an auto-harp – help create a more tranquil, trance-like and atmospheric sound than the album’s predecessor; Coupled with Chloé’s ethereal and at times haunting voice, the end result is the most compelling of albums…

From the opening bars of the aforementioned auto-harp that resonates throughout “Rien pour moi” – a deliciously troubling portrayal of an emotionally challenged relationship – you realise that you are listening to something rather special. The songs on this album demand attention – the lyrics have a truly biographical feel and every song on this album sets a scene as a narrative unfurls.

On an album choc-full of stand-out compositions, it is perhaps remiss to highlight a mere handful of songs here, however the way that “Écoute sans parler” and the effortlessly way that the song ploughs a similar psychedelic furrow to two of last year’s standout albums – Hôtel Morphée’s “Des histoires de fantômes” and Forêt ‘s stunning eponymous debut; “Un oiseau dans la vitre” – and it’s wonderfully uplifting and soaring chorus and “Le piège” – all hypnotic grove and emotional rawness – all hint at how truly outstanding an album this is.

There’s a perfect synergy with lyricism and melody on display here; the end result is a truly outstanding album that deserves to be in any discerning record collection. Lunes” was released in the same week as Catherine Leduc’s “Rookie” – an album that I’ve just rated as year-list material. I’d argue that this album is proof that lightening does indeed strike twice.

Chloé Lacasse – Rien pour moi

Catherine Leduc

2014-04-16-12-25-19-ARTS - Rencontre avecOriginally the female half of Canadian folk-pop duo Tricot Machine, “Rookie” is the debut solo album from Catherine Leduc, and despite the fact that Matthieu Beaumont – long-time partner and the other half of the Tricot Machine – helped produce, mix and play on a number of the keyboards, the sound is far removed from the frothy, bouncy – cute – piano-based pop that the duo were renowned. In it’s place is an incredibly dreamy, melancholic, atmospheric and ye, more mature, sound. Similar to Fanny Bloom (the voice behind La Patère Rose) and her own stunning 2012 solo “Apprentie Guerrière, “Rookie” sees Catherine Leduc blossom and deliver as assured an album as is likely to be released this year.

“Rookie” may seem a strange title for an album from an artist who in one guise or another has been performing and recording for over a decade, but as Catherine has revealed in interviews in the French-Canadian press, this album really is about starting out afresh and (re)defining herself, musically.

The haunting introduction to “Les Vieu hiboux” – with polysynth owls swooping through the midnight forest – sets the melancholic theme that is developed through the ten peerless songs featured here, all aided by the added tinge of fragility that Catherine’s vocals deliver. This feeling of melancholy is further driven home on the sublime “Vendredi Saint.” It’s an absolutely beautiful song – the construction – building from a solo acoustic guitar accompanying incredibly resonant lyrics that would surely melt the iciest of hearts – is as powerful as it is simply executed.

“Pee-Wee BB” sees Catherine explore through junior (ice) hockey, themes of inferiority and overcoming adversity – themes which again are woven through the album; while “Polatouche” adds glockenspiel with overdubbed vocals and the most angelic of choruses to a perfectly paced song.

It’s hard to pick out a stand-out track on an album of such high quality – the absence of a review of all the album’ songs is primarily one of brevity – but “Il faut se lever le matin”, with deep plucked bass chord, and the album’s closing number “Ouvre ton coeur!” with it’s soaring – imploring – chorus and uptempo hook are the songs that I keep returning to… And the ones that makes me yearn for more…

“Rookie” is one of this year’s outstanding albums – irrespective of language. Should further recommendation be required, it has, in my humble opinion, the same wow (as in “Wow! WTF was that?”) factor as Forêt’s astonishing debut from last year.

This album is year-list material…

Les Hay Babies

A year after romping home in the 17th edition of Les Francouvertes; Moncton, New Brunswick’s finest Arcadian country-folk band, Les Hay Babies release their debut album, “Mon Homesick Heart”, this week, featuring a great selection of banjo twanging folk songs, interspersed with some retro cowpunk and beautiful slower ballads.

The single “Fil de telephone”, which is reminiscent of the cowpunk style of the short-lived Boothill Foot Tappers, was released last month and serves as a pretty good introduction to what is going to find it’s way into my best-of-list for sure!


Whitehorse are the husband and wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland who’ve created quite a stir in Canada with their dynamic brand of folk-rock (their 2012 album “The Fate of the World Depends On This Kiss” was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize). Their latest album, Éphémère sans repère”, however sees the duo team up with renowned Montréal-based songwriter and producer Pierre Marchand, to translate five of their best known songs into the language of Molière.

Two of the songs, the album’s opener “Éphémère sans repère (Devil’s got a gun)” (official video below complete with sing-along lyrics) and “Le cadeau” are both thumping rock numbers – full of chugging guitars, perfect harmonies and chorus hookss that are guaranteed to embed themselves in your skull.

But the duo are equally at home when tackling different musical genres; there’s a nice change of pace provided by the gentle ebb and flow of “Les oiseaux de nuit (Night owls)“, a heartfelt ballad that just revolves around the pair’s vocal harmonies. Meanwhile “Brisée (Broken)” is about as good an upbeat country-folk song as I’ve heard this year, while “Je suis devenue lionne (Out like a lion)” is just a perfect pop-song – all spot-on harmonies, up-tempo rhythm… but then the middle-eight just hits you – all crashing, reverbed guitar – as the song builds to a crescendo of angelic vocals and wailing guitars…

Finally, and as a bonus, the pair tackle a Franco-Canadian standard, “Un Canadien errant”, written in 1842 by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie. The faithful acoustic rendition of this incredibly heartfelt and humble song, truly manages to convey the hardship and homesickness caused by being forced into exile…

“Éphémère sans repère” is a mini-album chock full of expertly and exquisitely crafted songs that linger in the head long after they album has finished. I expect this will be appearing in at least one “Best of 2014” list come year-end…

Thanks Steve!