Eric Slabiak, the violinist who, along with his brother Olivier, founded Les Yeux Noirs, describes their sixth album as a “good soup” made with “a lot of ingredients ... Eastern European, Jewish, gypsy ... and rock music”. The band takes elements of the different styles and blends them together in melodic chunks. Their songs have the luxurious, plastic sheen that French music sometimes commands, a kind of polished intimacy that isn’t always present in the source material. Where a more traditional gypsy group such as Taraf de Haïdouks sound as if they could keep a tune going all night if only their label and the length of a CD allowed it, the tracks on tChorba reach their natural end in less than five minutes. It’s a radio-friendly, audience-loving album.
Their lyrics deal with love and regret, although I say this without being able to understand the two songs sung in Romani, which are not translated in the notes. Sometimes the tunes turn love and regret into a knockabout drama (“Désirs Dérisoires” with its sing-along-able “Ay la la la la la” chorus) and sometimes it makes them somersault like a circus act (“La Belle Amour”). After opening the album at a noisy sprint, the band quietens down with “Rêve”, which is dominated by guitar, bowed strings, and a single singer. “Dream, my child, with your eyes open and closed,” he sings in French. “Carry your life in your little hands, with all your heart.”
The band’s jazzy gypsy side comes to the fore in the next tune, “Zam’hora Pe Opt”, an instrumental piece propelled by the Slabiak brothers’ jaunty fiddling. I write ‘propelled by’, but the sounds are mixed together so closely and evenly that it’s difficult to say that any song is driven by a single instrument. The toylike hopping of Marinel Miu’s cimbalom dulcimer is a constant presence on the livelier tracks, and the fiddles carry the weight of the Eastern European influences, but none of them is the centrepiece, no one is the star. An electric guitar bounces to the surface now and then, gives off a funky wah-wah and then melts back into the soup.
The most distinct demonstration of the band’s Jewish roots appears in the form of two Yiddish songs, “Yankele” and “Vos Iz Gevein”. “Yankele” is a lullaby and a lament, with the male singer taking the part of a mother looking down at her young son who is supposed to be going to sleep. The mother tells him that he will be a “genius, scholar, bridegroom”, but she is also reflecting on the “tears and pain it will still cost me/ Until the day that you become a man”. It’s the tender side of those comic-possessive Jewish mothers who burst into American sitcoms complaining that their children don’t appreciate everything they’ve done for them. “Vos Iz Gevein” is a heavier song, kicked along by death-march drums and the low, liquid tone of the singer. “How fast they fly by, youthful joys/ And you can’t bring them back…”
Despite this, tChorba is an upbeat album. The same audience that would walk away from Taraf de Haïdouks muttering, “Why do they have to screech all the time?” will listen to Les Yeux Noirs’ gypsy moments with smiles on their faces. The band sounds friendly. At the same time they’re interesting enough to appeal to some of the people who like their music rougher and less blended. tChorba doesn’t have the edge that would make it your favourite album of all time, but ten years from now people will be digging it out of the backs of their collections, saying, “Oh, that! I liked that. It was fun. Let’s listen to it again.”