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The Frenchmen

Sorry We Ruined Your Party

(Clairecords; US: 27 Feb 2007; UK: Available as import)

The very existence of this band (who aren’t French, but are actually from the rather un-Gallic Sacramento) is reassuring for several reasons. First of all, the band seems completely out of touch with every technological innovation and accompanying musical trend from the last fifteen years. Sorry We Ruined Your Party‘s not one of those albums that sounds pasted together on a computer; it’s not trying to impress you with carefully sculpted soundscapes or manipulated vocals or deftly selected samples or intricately programmed beats. It has the kind of muddy sound (maximum midrange, a saturation of spring reverb, and cymbal crashes that sound like static blasts) that smacks strongly of pre-digital amateur recording, giving the record a sweetly nostalgic feel while affirming the band’s unpretentiousness. Reminiscent of the ‘80s without the tortured vocalizing or discomfiting earnestness of the current crop of Cure/Echo and the Bunnymen imitators, the Frenchmen sound more like the New Zealand bands from that era (the Chills, the Bats, the Verlaines): jangly guitars, accessible melodies, and unpolished vocals. “Crimes of Fashion”, especially, rings like a lost Chills track, the lead vocal capturing the distinctive Kiwi timbre and cadence.


It helps, too, that all their songs are uptempo and short (the album clocks in at around twenty-five minutes), full of ba-ba-ba harmonies and big drum rolls and happily familiar chord changes. “Chemistry Lessons” is a perfect two minutes of plaintive yearning balanced carefully against rollicking, restless drumming and well-orchestrated layers of artlessly sung backing vocals. The harmonies on “Flake for You” are so nuanced and imaginative that it’s enough to make you forgive the flat, off-key singing.


With its meance-free female vocals (the Frenchmen are not all men, either), its no-nonsense approach to songwriting, and occasional lapses into self-conscious cuteness, the band can seem like an American version of Shonen Knife, playing a surf-rock-derived punk that’s obviously indebted to the Ramones (“Tell Me Why” steals a hook from “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You”). But the best comparison is probably with Tiger Trap, another Sacramento band who recorded for K Records during the heyday of Beat Happening. What all these bands have in common is a faith in simplicity and directness; rather than strain for some oblique originality, they execute winning formulas with exuberance, trusting their unmistakably convivial spirit and their joyous, inclusive energy to leave an impression instead. They don’t try to justify their existence as a band by trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s as though it never occurred to them that the world might not need another rock band, and that kind of irrepressible innocence is inspiring. Like all great punk rock, this album doesn’t trade in paralyzing envy, making you wish you were cool or worse, think you’re cooler than someone else for listening to it; its main function is simply to make it seem like second nature that you should be making your own music.


But perhaps most endearingly, the mix of male and female band members coupled with the absolute absence of sexual tension or charge is surprisingly refreshing, suggesting that boys and girls might actually be able to collaborate on something without an inevitable erotic subtext. The coed mix of harmonizing voices on Frenchmen songs like “Veterans Day” and “Like the Weather” are as rugged and chaste as a game of kickball, and the lyrics throughout the record seem refreshingly angst-free despite, upon deciphering, being full of adolescent confusion and a stoic submission to romantic frustration. But despite the content of the songs, their seemingly effortless creation evokes gender-blind hassle-free friendship, and in a hypersexed world, where men and women are typically depicted as being incomprehensible to each other, there is great solace in this.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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