With the current global pandemic of financial instability and bank collapses rattling our corporate cages, a disaster to match the scale of the Great Depression seems less and less unlikely as the gloom rolls in further week by week. But before you hurl yourself into the Thames in anticipation of a full-blown meltdown, it’s perhaps worth remembering that out of struggle often comes great art. For instance, the Depression years of the 1930s saw the popularisation of jazz in Europe, particularly France, having bubbled out of the underground where it had germinated from black musician immigrants during World War I. Jazz was a music that seemed to embody the idea that everyone has the right to romance; like an undulating expert lover, it was supple, surprising and fluid, and the French made it even sexier.
By the time the Great Depression lifted, Édith Piaf had became one of the nation’s most celebrated jazz singers and – recent ignominy of that Specsavers ad aside – remains an unimpeachable cultural beacon of romance and tragedy forty-five years after her death. The likes of Madeleine Peyroux, Martha Wainwright and (appropriately for this review, in case you were wondering when I’d get to the point) My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden justly hold her up as an icon of musical integrity, passion and grandeur. Having frequently dropped several Piaf covers into her live sets in the last few years, Worden’s latest EP gives her the chance to port that same starry-eyed theatricality and geste d’amour to wax. (Or to MP3 at least; From The Top Of The World is a digital-only release.)
Shara Worden’s obsession with all things French may well have begun in early childhood (Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s famed ‘Le Petit Prince’ is one of her favourite books), and her version of Kurt Weill/Roger Fernay’s fantastical odyssey ‘Youkali: Tango Habañera’ fits right in with her fairytale-inspired originals (‘From The Top Of The World’ itself is based on a George Macdonald children’s novella). The twisted tango strut of the strings, almost cartoonishly villainous on first listen, possesses all the menace of the titular soured, misperceived utopia as Worden conjures up the requisite drama and sultry despair to pull it off magnificently.
Although the EP’s press release talks about Worden’s love for French songs of the 1930s, the two Piaf covers ‘Adieu Mon Cœur’ and ‘Hymne à l’Amour’ are in fact post-WWII compositions. What’s more, the latter is unexpectedly sung in English – a bit cheeky perhaps, but it’s so beautiful you’ll forget that minor quibble in a moment. With its swoonsome strings, brushed snares and welcome, gentle accents of unobtrusive electronica, it’s an absolute delight from start to cymbal-crashing finish. ‘Adieu’, too, is a twinkly jewel of expertly pitched melancholy that waves goodbye to love in a tender dénouement.
Worden’s effort nevertheless seems a little half-arsed in execution compared with White Hinterland’s exploration of yé-yé era pop. Casey Dienel and co. have taken the French theme and run with it – even the sleeve notes are en française – and have even included a pair of romance language originals among the three covers. In the sexually progressive 1960s, the French charts were aflame with amour. Professional lech Serge Gainsbourg flew the flag for the hommes, while immaculately coiffed mademoiselles Françoise Hardy, France Gall, Sylvie Vartan and Brigitte Bardot pouted to perfection. But rather than rotely repeating the trick of the day, White Hinterland have taken an altogether more interesting route in forging something much more avant-garde in its ambitions.
First of all, there’s that title; a convincing portmanteau of the French words ‘lunaire’ (moon) and ‘funiculaire’ (railway), it encapsulates the EP’s appealing bipolarity of familiarity and strangeness. If Phylactery Factory was like boarding a train to an icebound Sea of Tranquility, Luniculaire‘s bristling autumnal vagueness is, at times, like freefalling into a deep lunar crater…with earmuffs on. For her covers Dienel has chosen three mood pieces over the kind of overt pop melodies that have kept April March in business all these years. Yet all the hazy, natural cockiness of Gainsbourg’s ‘Requiem Pour Un Con’ is tautly preserved in the addictive percussion and Dienel’s surprisingly direct delivery, while Françoise Hardy’s ‘Mon Ami La Rose’ is executed with a subtlety akin to the simplicity of the original but infused with modern drone-like elements and a crisp, organic beat.
The most interesting cover is that of Brigitte Fontaine’s ‘J’ai 26 Ans’, the original being a no less fascinating fusion of a jazz-pop starlet in the making and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s avant-garde stylings (which later saw an increasingly poetic Fontaine fully adopted into the Parisian underground scene). White Hinterland have artfully constructed a dense rendering of this underappreciated gem, one that’s ceaselessly vibrant and packed with chaotic rhythms that never quite converge. And of the originals, layered guitars and distant drums are the order of the day on ‘Chant de Grillon’, a compellingly brooding saunter through a nightmarish meadow of crickets (the guitars even sound like insects rubbing their legs together), while closer ‘Lunirascible’ is blessedly drone-free, with just a shimmering piano melody and skittering drums underpinning Dienel’s groundless vocalisations.
Neither Worden nor Dienel has Martha Wainwright’s luxury of a French Canadian upbringing and both are understandably cautious about any translation or pronunciation errors they may stand accused of (pre-empted in the Luniculaire insert by an advance apology for “la litanie d’erreurs“). But only a sourpuss would dock marks for that from what are plainly beautiful and heartfelt love letters to the nation. More valid criticisms lie in their tendency for indulgence: in Worden’s case for being a bit too faithful to the originals, and in White Hinterland’s case for slightly weak production that obscures, or at least lessens the impact of, the songs’ vitality (a criticism levelled at Phylactery Factory before it). It would matter less if Dienel were more committed to the rigours of correct diction, and as hard to comprehend as she can be in English, at times she might as well be singing in Italian or Spanish.
Everyone has the right to romance, so whether you prefer les chansons d’amour of From The Top Of The World or les liaisons dangereuses of Luniculaire, get lost in their love of all things Gallic.
[Asthmatic Kitty; September 22, 2008 / Dead Oceans; October 20, 2008]