Speak To Me of Love
Every few decades, reincarnation goes on a bender and a soul is born into the wrong nexus of the time-space continuum. Take Meg Reichardt and Kurt Hoffmann, a dashing pair of musicians from pre-war France, accidentally transported into 21st century New York. Unheeding of their incorrectly assigned era, the pair – two parts of the quintet Les Chauds Lapins – have taken it upon themselves to re-enliven the spirited chansons of Paris.
Les Chaud Lapins, which translates literally as “The Hot Rabbits” or figuratively as “The Super Turned-On Rabbits” (those French are always turned on!), have a new recording – Parlez-moi d’amour. This collection of 1920s-40s French love songs is steamy to be sure, but it’s not the steam of jungle love the Rabbits are after – this is the kind of steam that pours gently from vents in a Paris sidewalk and blows up your lover’s skirt as children roll hoops and street vendors hawk pretzels piled high with rock salt and spicy mustard, while the Hurdy Gurdy man grinds away at his organ, pet monkey banging tin cup against the sidewalk. “Parlez-moi d’amour” is the steam of a hot latte and a plate of onion quiche on a spring morning, the steam of the landlady’s boiler blowing a gasket next to the spot where you and your secret paramour are making love on a time-worn picnic blanket.
Viola, bass, trumpet and cello pour a romantic backdrop for idyllic lead instruments: A pair of banjo ukuleles played by Hoffman and Reichardt. Before the 1920s, a common complaint about the ever popular uku-lele (literally, “dancing flea,” from Hawaiian) was that it was insufficiently loud; the banjo uke, or banjulele, combined the volume of the banjo with the gentle ease of the uke. Hoffman and Reichardt play theirs with a suppleness that animates and rejuvenates this classic music with a sweetness that speaks of life before carpet bombing.
The group derive much of their material from songs of the massively prolific French singer/songwriter Charles Trenet, aka “Le Fou Chantant” (“The Singing Fool”), who is virtually unknown state-side, save for Bobby Darin’s remake of his “La Mer” as “Beyond the Sea.” In fact, it was Hoffman’s discovery of a pile of old Trenet 78s that sparked his obsession with the period. Although Trenet was at times given to silliness …
… his contribution to French pop culture is anything but. To convey the importance of Trenet to this period of musical delirium, consider that poet and songwriter Jaques Brel once semi-famously said of him, “Without Trenet, we would all have been accountants.” Trenet’s lyrics sometimes bordered on ecstatic, as heard in Hoffman and Reichardt’s version of “J’ai connu de vous”, the lyrics to which evoke (for me) the verses of mystical Persian poet Rumi.
The mad caresses,
your pretty teeth…
you see, madame,
we forget nothing!
The verses become even more surreal as the song progresses – nothing is as it seems!
I got to know you
the burned soup
the sickly sweet stews
the saline tarts
Instead of answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’
You’d jump from the balcony
Calmly I’d let you fall to street level.
I got to know you
The flying dishes
The evenings of anger
When you were crazy
Don’t you see, Madame, that we forget nothing?
Me, I still think of you
I remember the kitchen
Where you gently combined
The pepper with the cleaning fluid
The suger, the mustarde, the milk, the chicory!
When we knew the same intoxicating feelings
And when we didn’t love each other anymore
There was tenderness
You see, Madame, that we forget nothing.
Me, I still think of you.
(Thanks Kurt Hoffman for the translation!)
Parlez-moi d’amour also pulls from the catalogs of France’s “Little Sparrow” Edith Piaf and other mid-last-century European songwriters. In the absence of a cover of Trenet’s “Boum” (once scandalously appropriated by Absolut Vodka), the album’s catchiest track is the cover of Pearly’s “Il M’a Vu Nue” (“He Saw Me Nude”), as jaunty as it is naughty.[audio:http://stuckbetweenstations.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/02-il-ma-vue-nue-2.mp3]
Though I don’t speak a lick of French, the title track (by JB Lenoir) seems to implore a love-struck soul to return reciprocal affection – Reichard’s intonations convey all this whether you grok the language or not.
The recording itself is absolutely gorgeous: The strings are both lush and precise; vocals buttery, harmonious, true to the spirit of the song-world they span. Because we live 60 or more years after many of these songs were originally recorded (and because Les Chaud Lapins care deeply about fidelity), Parlez-moi d’amour presents an opportunity to hear these songs free of pops and scratches, as they might have sounded half a century ago, live in a neighborhood cafe. The recording is perfectly balanced — succulent yet simple, never overly ripe, nor sonically compressed.
Though Hoffman and Reichardt appear entirely committed to this music, their musical histories are diverse. Hoffman has played and arranged for the Ordinaires, the Band of Weeds, and They Might Be Giants, and has recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hog, Frank Black, Firewater, and Drink Me. Francophile Reichardt lives a double life as guitarist for The Roulette Sisters, an all-woman quartet focused on early American blues, country, folk and parlor songs.
If you’re craving a break from your alt.diet of Arcade Fire and Stiff Little Fingers, Les Chaud Lapins provide the perfect respite, guaranteed to turn on your ears. As their web site proclaims, “This music will cause you to recklessly try your luck.” Oh yeah, baby!
Les Chaud Lapins have generously offered to allow Stuck Between Stations to provide a few tracks from the album for download. Enjoy!