ARE & BE

MUSIC IN REVIEW
by Guillaume Destot


Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


So you thought you knew all about contemporary French pop music? How wrong you were. The so-called 'French touch' of Daft Punk or Air is one thing, but here is something too rarely heard of: Frenchies playing rock with lyrics in English. Which means, as you may have deduced, since you're all smart enough to read this review, that you' ll be able to sing along to the record! Big time! Phoenix is a Paris-based band that used to tour with Air. If you've ever heard Air live, you'll know that it's quite unlike their listener-friendly brand of electronica. This album, United displays however a range of inspiration comparable to that of Air. There is an obvious fondness and/or nostalgia for the late 70s and early 80s era, not only in terms of sounds, but even in the design of the jacket, which is a very good imitation indeed of those old record sleeves we used to know, grainy black and white photograph of the band and macho-teasing front with the outstretched arms of a nail-varnished girl whom we imagine as some Miami Vice-type "femme fatale".

The record starts off with an instrumental number based on the combination of distorted guitars and funky drums, a bit like 'Black Betty'. Track 2, however, is more characteristic of the rest of the album, with the use of analogical synthesizer sounds, an uptempo structure reminiscent of early Cure. This deserves to be a radio hit. Diversity of styles is a strong point of this release, from the ballad "Honeymoon," a mixture of Ricky Lee Jones and "Je t'aime moi non Plus" with additional harp bringing a Caribbean flavour (trust me), to the disco number "If I Ever Feel Better" which will take you back to the good old days (!) of Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." Track 5, a Nirvana-like romp, could have been omitted and seems to be there only as a proof that the band can play punk rock just as well: actually they can't. More funky numbers are fortunately to come, with juicy clavinet on "On fire," and a slow instrumental which will remind you of Bob James in his funky period(track 7). Pedal steel turns up on several tracks, adding a country touch, especially on the 3-part "Funky Square Dance," where it is doubled by a Honky Tonk epinette track (yes, they can do it), and before that on "Summer Days," where "Raindrops are falling on my head" meets teenage summer surf romance. "Funky Square Dance" makes use of the vocoder, crowd noises, a mad shouting entertainer and a drum machine right out of an early Hip Hop record, like Grand Master Flash or Herbie Hancock's "Rock It." The track resolves in a good old 80s style heavy metal guitar solo with tapping, dive-bombing, shredding distortion, the works. The record ends with a tasteful instrumental, low tempo outro. The singing on the record is rather high-pitched, and quite suited to this brand of disco and rock, while the lyrics are alternately not worth mentioning or just okay. They suggest however that there is an English-speaking author behind the band, perhaps one of them actually, but I have not managed to check this. If that is all-important to you, then, go and search the web for more info (good luck).

I would have said a lot about Hobotalk's debut, Beauty in Madness had I not lost the sheet where I jot down my thoughts as I listen to the records. Too bad. What I can tell you however is that it's worth buying if, among those hidden vices of yours, there is a taste for country-folk music. Hobotalk are from Dunbar, Scotland, but they sure sound very American, though there is more to it. While they acknowledge Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or Tom Waits as major influences, I myself found that the whole atmosphere reminded me of James Taylor, or more recently Tracy Chapman, with the folky guitars, dobro guitars, low-mixed rhythm sections and slow tempos that are characterisic of their cosy musical universe. But there is a markedly British songwriter twist here, and singer Marc Pilley's voice and emotional accents evoke at times Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Pilley also writes the songs, drawing from his personal (dreary?) experience and apparently pessimistic outlook, and the lyrics are not exactly about missing your parents' farm or asking you gal to marry you and give you sons to keep the dynasty going. Add layers of old-fashioned organs, piles of melancholy and the occasional fit of twang in Pilley's voice, pepper it with memories of Jeff Buckley and there you are: a very mature, very personal brand of international country-folk music that'll leave you dreamy and appeased. It is a very endearing record indeed.

And now for some excellent news. For those of you to whom the name Stevie Wonder only evokes "I just Called to Say I love You" and "Free," cheer up, for salvation is near at hand. Motown have indeed released in the past few months four of Stevie Wonder's best albums, dating back to a time when our man did not consider the use of regular "instruments" (bass, drums, horns, guitars) as superfluous. The first of the series is "Talking Book," featuring tracks like "Superstition," "You are the Sunshine of my Life," "Big Brother," or "You've got it bad girl." it also features Ray Parker, Jr. and Jeff Beck, who is not exactly your average studio shark. "Innervisions" (1973) and "Fulfilligness' First Finale" (1974) are more or less twin albums, with similar jacket designs, and are equally brilliant, with such tunes as "Visions," one of my personal favourites, "Living for the City' (perhaps you've heard the cover Ike and Tina Turner made of it), "Higher Ground" (the Red Hot Chilli Peppers recorded their own version a few years back), the heartbreaking, bitter ballad "All in Love is Fair" (come on, don't pretend you're tougher than you actually are), and the optimistic "Don't you worry 'bout a thing," which makes use of Cuban rhythm piano patterns , and will perhaps convince you that the better is yet to come for you. Highlights on "Fulfillingness" include "Too Shy to Say," one of the best love songs ever written (I think), "Boogie on Reggae Woman," a famous hit, and the neo-gospel, soul-loaded "They won't go when I go," which is not recommended if you feel low already. You will also find in a new, re-mastered version of the classic album "Songs in the Key of Life," which everybody knows at least through the covers and sampling of many a song featuring on the record: "I Wish" (the original and incomparably better version of Will Smith's "Wild Wild West"), "Pastime Paradise" (remember Coolio's"'Gangsta's Paradise"?), "As" (recently interpreted by George Michael and Mary J. Blige, who ommitted the best part, when Stevie heats up and growls in the microphone like an angry preacher) and other excellent songs like "Village Ghetto land," "Sir Duke," a tribute to Ellington, "Ordinary Pain," a duet in which Stevie sings a complaining first part about his missus having dropped him, and Minnie Riperton takes the second part, giving her side of the story in a funky , ass-kicking reply. You'll also find "Isn't she lovely," which contains one of Stevie's very best harmonica solos. To name but a few of the musicians featuring on the record: Nathan Watts (that phat bass on "I wish"), Syreeta Wright (Stevie's protégée), Greg Phillinganes, Mike Sembello, Dean Parks (legendary session musicians who worked on Michael Jackson's Thriller among other things), and no less than Herbie Hancock and George Benson themselves.

Stevie gave another meaning to 'soul music' in the 70s, as the Beatles did to pop music in the 60s. His inventiveness, the versatiilty of his style, the variety of his arrangements, his awesome vocal prowess and keyboard playing would need several volumes to describe. I can hardly do justice to his genius in a mere few lines, so once again, I'll rely on my favourite line, "go and listen to it." Soul had never been so good before (not even with Marvin Gaye, I'm afraid) and has never reached such a degree of excellence since. To me Stevie Wonder is the Lennon/McCartney of soul music, and if I had to take only two records on a desert island for the rest of my life (who knows?) I'd take Sergent Pepper and Songs in the Key of Life. Honest.

Buy Phoenix's United, Hobotalk's Beauty in Madness and Stevie Wonder's albums from: http://www.amazon.co.uk. Check out Hobotalk's website: http://hobotalk.com.




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destotguillaume@lemonde.fr





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