[14 May 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It goes without saying that the written history of pop/rock music is largely US- and UK-centric, leaving inquiring minds to wonder what was going on in other parts of the world during equivalent periods. BIPPP: French Synth Wave 1979-85 supplies one answer, for one country and time period. It documents the post-punk/new wave time period, a movement away from punk but with the same DIY energy and desire to mess around.
The inner album art is a graffiti-augmented pinup wall in some imagined dank, dirty nightclub, with newspaper clippings and photos identifying the 14 bands included in this compilation. As an image it makes me think of all the bands playing together, across the years, in that dark club—of this album as capturing one night in a French CBGBs. In place of guitars, more or less, are synthesizers, but this doesn’t represent the ‘80s stereotype of synthesizers equaling positive vibrations. There’s a dark energy to the music. There’s drama and angst, and often a morose feeling in the air. (The lyric “it’s a pretty way to die”, from Marie Moor’s “Pretty Day”, stands out as a hook of an album theme… though, to be honest, that’s also because it’s one of the few distinct lyrics in English, and I don’t speak French.)
Yet there’s also humor and playfulness; witness even just the cartoonish, exaggerated horror-movie vibe of the opening track, “Contagion” by A Trois Dans Les WC. That track and a few more—Act’s “Ping Pong”, especially—suggest ragged, hardened rebels who have taken to singing over brighter, less obviously “tough” tracks, and managed to still bring out the intensity in them, while necessarily seeming more flirty at the same time, via the juxtaposition.
The brief liner notes credit Jacno’s 1979 song “Rectangle” as the spark that lit this wave of bands. Alas, that track isn’t present here. Neither are the bands cited along with it as this scene’s forbearers: Kas Product, Mathematiques Modernes and Charles De Goal. Instead the focus here is on the bands that came next, in the wake of these. It’s described as a “reintroduction”, with the awareness that these are obscure bands which were in danger of being lost to the ravages of time, especially outside of their native country.
Though there is somewhat of an overriding “sound” here, there’s much variety within it, from the dance-club theatre of Vox Dei’s “Terroriste”, which takes a light pop tune and puts foreboding vocals over it, to the sleeker futurism of TGV’s “Partie 1” or CKC’s stormy and almost funky “20H25”. These bands may be playing similar instruments, but not in the same way. In fact, it’s the versatility of synthesizers that’s on display as much as the specific personalities these musicians created.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the album in terms of songcraft comes about three-fourths of the way through, with the pairing of Deux’s “Game and Performance” and Ruth’s “Polaroid/Roman/Photo”. Both are art-pop songs that cultivate intimacy and distance, sexiness and strangeness. The latter also has a casually expansive surface, with an insistent drive and a multiple-personality chanteuse, who vocally keeps morphing from an adult to a child, leading the way through a dreamy thicket of warm horns and strings. Equally dualistic in some ways is Casino Music’s “Viol Af Dis”, which is a swift party jam with a dark cloud of anguish around it, plus room for the players to show off their chops. In the inlay for the CD there’s a selection of the bands’ original record art. The Casino Music cover is the most quintessentially ‘80s, with the duo standing in front of a hot-pink backdrop, sporting the fashions of the day. Take that album cover, combine it with the TGV cover photo of a fast-moving train, and combine that with the one, artist unclear, of a skeleton with a dying rose, and you’ll have a visual image to match the music: dark, romantic, hip, strange, and on the move.