You can tell a lot about an American by his or her opinion of the French. For a sizable population, they remain cheese-eating surrender monkeys, a national embodiment of the sort of effete, intellectual liberality who get trotted out as an insult any time someone dares to use a big word. For the others, they measure as whimsical masters of the bohemian lifestyle from a country of impossibly attractive wine connoisseurs casually smoking cigarettes while watching art-house cinema. No other nation on earth arguably enjoys such a conflicted opinion in the public consciousness.
New York-based Nous Non Plus obviously belongs to the latter category, albeit without any trace of seriousness about their admiration. Born from the similar-sounding Francophiles Les Sans Culottes, the group of cheekily nomed musicians—besides frontman/bassist Jean-Luc Retard (actually subject of the documentary Air Guitar Nation/lover of cheesy, foreign stage names such as Dan Crane/Björn Türoque) there’s such, ahem, gems as Céline Dijon and François Hardonne—share that group’s love of breezy French pop, though with a definite eye towards something a little more tongue in cheek. The result classifies as a record of stomach-able, if not exactly inspiring pop with a mangled French accent, albeit one that’s definitely better when it avoids being cute, in either the doe-eyed or sly sense of the word.
An unfortunate example of the latter is “French Teacher”, a twee-disco answer to “Hot For Teacher”. Riding a muted-funk bassline and dance drums, Retard coos suggestive and blatantly sexual lyrics (“She walks into class / In a short tight skirt / The curve of her ass / Is making me hurt”) with the cheesy song growing tired well before a painful skit interrupts the last chorus.
“Teacher” would be more forgivable if it was an isolated incident, but too often throughout Ménagerie Nous Non Plus seems content to dress up substandard ideas and execution in Gallic revelry, as though the novelty of singing in French excuses laziness. “La Momie”, for instance, essentially a one-joke riff on falling in love with a mummy, distinguishes itself only for a vaguely horroris but still very bright synth line. At least it sticks out, though, as most of the back half of the album assembles a mix of loungey, bright French pop, not exactly hard on the ears but never anything that demands attention.
With that said, Ménagerie has its bright spots, especially when the band gets a little more subversive. First song/lead single, “Loli”, burns with a frustrated desire. Its garagey urgency gives Retard’s desperate sexuality the kind of jolt that most of the album sorely lacks. “Mais Maintenant il Faut Danser”, meanwhile, gives a kind of a Gogol Bordello-lite treatment to a song about fucking the world. As much of a party as it is, though, the song has a certain sly, biting humour contained in lines such as, “Big bombs fall on little children / The sounds of panic fill the air / Mais maintenant il faut danser (But for the moment, we must dance)”, a wit and subversion of the cutesy Frenchness that doesn’t pop up nearly enough throughout the album.
If they had gone more in that direction, Nous Non Plus would have at least made up for the simplicity of its presentation, to say nothing of given the romantics who glorify the French as a kind of under-the-table shot in the groin. Nothing like turning half-thought-out romanticism against people. Instead, though, they aim mostly to reproduce, rather lamely, that same romantic French ideal, and so most of the album engages as listening to a newly returned backpacker reminisce about the time he or she ate a baguette on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower. If French pop is your thing, you’d be far better off to skip the imitation.
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// Notes from the Road
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