Out of Europe: A French Top Five

So as the news arrives that France has decided not to vote in a fascist president* (even if 11 million of them did vote for one –  what the fuck mes amies?) I thought that I’d revisit the Top Five / Out of Europe format with a quick list of those songs – a sort of “this is what we’re saying goodbye to” from those countries that will remain part of the EU long after our pathetically ego-driven and pig-ignorant leader has ripped us from it.

Already covered: Sweden

France is, of course, our closest neighbour. Living down in Kent I’ve always been aware of that proximity and, when I worked down by the coast I’d see it on a daily basis, the rising of the North’s cliffs and coast on the horizon, often pulling up for lunch, looking at it across the Channel and wondering about the culture that dwelt over such a small stretch of water and just how close, within reach exploring it was. It was my first taste of wanderlust.

As it would happen, I ended up spending a large amount of time in France and Paris a few years later as my wife was still living there for the first year or so of our relationship. As such, while you end up with mixed feelings about any country / place you spend a lot of time in, I hold many a fond memory for the place and most of these songs are tied up in that.

So…. in no particular order and trying to cover as good a spread of genres as possible….

Noir Désir – Lost

Yeah…. so; this kind of enters into the whole separation of art from artist and whether you a) can and b) is the art more important than the artist. Given that everything Noir Désir recorded preceded Bertrand Cantat’s violent and fatal assault of his girlfriend** it should be the case that one of France’s biggest rock band’s work remains free to stand alone but it’s a heavy shadow that’s been cast over it. Still, as I’ve said before – I wasn’t aware of this when I got into the band and I still enjoy the music as it reminds of me of my time there, having discovered them while sat in traffic in Paris and listening to the radio. This one comes from their final album des Visages des Figures, a more brooding affair than previous efforts but a successful one.

MC Solaar  – Nouveau western

A genius recasting of Serge Gainsbourg et Brigitte Bardot’s 1968 classic French song ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ – that song itself reportedly based on a poem Bonnie Parker had written moments before she and Clyde Barrow were gunned down. MC Solaar – or Claude M’Barali to give him his full name – was one of the first to get rap through to the mainstream in France. ‘Nouvaeu Western’ tackles racism and colonialism, is catchy as hell and features an absolutely brilliant video.

M83 – Kim & Jessie | Air – All I Need

If we’re talking French electronic music (and not discussing Jean-Michel Jarre) there’s got be three bands that will come up: Daft Punk, Air and M83. I like a bit of Daft Punk but couldn’t really say I listen to any of it enough to warrant a place for it here. M83’s ‘Kim & Jessie’ had me hooked from the opening with those monumental electric drum hits. There’s something so surging, nostalgic and warm about this song that’s irrefutably good. Air’s ‘All I Need’ from their first album Moon Safari (nearly 20 years old ffs) has a similar effect on me, just bliss.

Yann Tiersen – “J’y suis jamais allé”

Man I could probably fill another post with rambling about French films and their soundtracks and may well do at a later date when you know… procrastination allows.  I’d have to talk about Eric Serra’s soundtrack work and give off gas about Subway or how addictive I find from Enae Volare from Les Visiteurs and….  Let’s get this list finished first though.  Probably the most well known soundtrack and most obviously ‘French’ of the lot though is this piece from the mighty Yann Tiersen’s second album Rue des cascades as it would go on to feature in his soundtrack for Amelie five years later, catapulting it and Tiersen to a much greater audience. I still love it though, cliché as it may be.

This is, of course a quick list – ie; those that came to me first. If I sat down and gave it more thought then a) this would never get finished and posted and b) I would likely swap a few but then….

Honourable mentions:

Yael Naim – Paris

Alain Bashung – J’écume

Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5:55

Eric Serra – Guns and People

*I’m trying (clearly not completely succeeding) to avoid politics on this blog but I will say that while I celebrate any victory over far-right, holocaust-denying fascism I don’t believe Macron is a strong result either and the thing with his wife….. forget about it.

**Cantat was sentenced to 8 years in prison for Involuntary Manslaughter and was released on parole having served 4. During his time in prison his house was burnt down. After his release – much protested by the band made a brief attempt at returning but the guitarist called it quits citing  “emotional, human and musical differences” with Cantant and the band announced it was done. Cantant has continued in music though this remains a controversial discussion point in the musical press and community.

Least To Most: Bruce – Human Touch

Now I can imagine that for each of the albums that precede my ‘Most’ favourite in this series there’s plenty of people that will say “actually that’s my favourite..” to pretty much all of them. With the easy and obvious exception that is Springsteen’s early-nineties output. Given the scarcity with which the tracks are touched live I don’t think even Bruce cares much for them in retrospect.

Released  on the same day in March 1992, neither Lucky Town or Human Touch have fared well with fans or critics. Perhaps it was the lack of E-Street support, perhaps it was the changing musical culture at the time but either way, I doubt that even the most die-hard will argue for their place in a Top Ten.

bruce_springsteen_-_human_touch_-_coverart_-_iOf the two I find Human Touch the overall weakest link in Bruce’s mighty discography. These were songs that Bruce had been tooling around with for some time and had, in doing so, over-cooked. If you listen  to The Christic Shows recorded in LA in 1990, many of the songs that would appear here can be heard in their early embryonic stages. They sound better. At the time it would’ve left fans eager to hear the finished result, excited by the change in direction with what sounded like some real personal stuff (though the sexually-charged ‘Red Headed Woman’ didn’t make the cut). Unfortunately when it came time to capture theses songs for release, the result was what’s now considered the nadir of Bruce’s output.

It’s not that there aren’t good songs on Human Touch it’s just that there aren’t enough of them and those that have the bones of a great song are lost under some truly awful production and sound, like ‘Soul Driver’, for example. When I do slip the cd into the car, it’s more likely that I skip through more than half of the album.

The story goes that Bruce – newly transplanted to LA – had a collection of songs that he was working on but couldn’t quite find the turning point that would bring them into a cohesive album. He wanted to continue the theme and practice of not employing the E-Street Band he’d started with Tunnel of Love and try a new approach. Then he met up with a similarly newly-moved Roy Bittan who showed him his new recording set up and synths before playing his former-Boss a few tunes he’d worked on. Inspired, Bruce went home, added a few parts and lyrics to those tracks and  a long period trying to find the ‘sound’ and working with session players followed before the album was complete*.

Of those Bittan co-writes that made Human TouchRoll of the Dice‘ is Springsteen-by-numbers but without the heart and force of the E-Street band to lift it beyond over-glossed territory. On the other hand, ‘Real World’ is perhaps the most fully-realised of his ‘men and women’ concept that many had hoped for. There’s just not enough of it and the players and production still mar what should have been a classic.

While the production (the one and only time Roy Bittan received a credit for such) is very much of it’s time and the slick sound has never suited Bruce. It would be the last ‘rock’ album he’d release before he released that he wasn’t the right person to produce his music any more. The album does have some strong contenders, not least it’s classic title track, that stand up well to repeated listens. ‘With Every Wish’ is a great tune as is ‘I Wish I Were Blind‘. They’re more relaxed, less drenched in studio-session  sound and are genuine, occasionally even tender tunes that, along with ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Real World’ are the most realised on the album. Indeed, some of his best lyrics can be found within the title track: “you can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”.

Unfortunately the remainder – to my ears – sound more like what a songwriter trying to write like Bruce Springsteen would create. They seem hollow-boned and attempts to cover the gaps with gloss and force (which may have worked with the E-Street) via top notch session players just fall flat. At the time it wasn’t so condemned but now, further on up the road, it’s blighted by dated guitar tones and synthesisers and drum beats that simply don’t measure up to Max.

Thankfully, Human Touch may have been the first release of the nineties from Mr Springsteen but from here it was only upwards in terms of quality and its sister release was a whole other story.

In the spirit of ‘what might have been’ – some of the tracks deemed not suitable for Human Touch would later appear on Tracks and, shorn of the production elements that blight it, sound (just a touch mind) a little better than those duffs rounding out the numbers here. I’d gladly swap ‘When the Lights Go Out’ for ’57 Channels’ and I still enjoy ‘Seven Angels’.

Highlights: Human Touch, Real World, With Every Wish, I Wish I Were Blind

Lowlights: Soul Driver, Man’s Job, 57 Channels and Nothin’ On, All Or Nothin’ At All

 

 

*Almost – he felt he needed one more song, wrote ‘Living Proof’ and instead dashed off enough tracks to make Lucky Town in just a few days.

Quick List: 2016 in 5 (Gut reaction)

While every sane and right-thinking person on this planet greets this morning’s news with a collective “WHAT THE FUCK?!” I received a “Top 5 songs that reflect 2016” message.

In the spirit of ‘think less, post more’ here are those that, in no particular order, leapt to mind.

Tool – Ænema

The lyrics… the timing signatures…

Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

REM – It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) 

The Rolling Stones- Gimme Shelter

Has there been a better apocalyptic song than this? Or album than Let It Bleed?*

Eels – End Times 

“Crazy guy with a matted beard, standing on the corner. Shouting out “end times are near” and nobody noticed him”

 

 

*No. No there hasn’t.

Quick List: Top Five Debuts

Five

I recently texted two of my most music loving, list-compiling friends a simple message: “All time top five debut albums?”

It was interesting to see a couple of cross-overs on the lists. Here, however, are mine (in no particular order, that’d be too hard):

Pearl Jam – Ten

Jeff Buckley – Grace

The Clash – The Clash

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?