The Rough Guides have been disappointing me lately. It’s not that the compilations are bad in themselves, it’s that the themes they choose are unadventurous. The Rough Guide to Indian Lounge plopped down like a sponge-tipped arrow aimed at an ethnically aspirational subset of the Buddha Bar market, and a title like North African Café squeaks timidity. “Amble … past the cafés filled with the aromatic smoke of hookah pipes,” smarms the blurb. There’s something squashy and fogged about that word “amble,” and about the blurb as a whole with its tourist-brochure invocations. The absence of sharpness, of action, seems to be asking for a corresponding softening of expectations on the part of the audience. “Oh come on,” it smiles. “Relax. Don’t expect the earth.”
The Rough Guide to the Music of Paris sounds like another safe bet. Paris is romantic, Paris is chic, Paris is the grand and familiar city of unreal dreams, and just in case we’re missing the mystique the album comes with a suggestive, pink-lit shot of the Eiffel Tower on the front to jog our memories. Lovely Paris. The lost world of Benjamin’s Arcades, the boulevards, the cafés, the wine, the art, etc, etc, ah Paris! And yet this Rough Guide is a clunky, unsmooth thing, more like two albums jammed together than a single united compilation. The first sub-album is short, only an EP really, and it’s made up of the same kind of easily-lovable chanson that we heard on last year’s Paris compilation from Putumayo. Here we have Emily Loizeau, wonderfully languid and sunny on “L’Autre Bout du Monde”, David Lafore giving a rich twist to every word on “Plat À Gratin”, and Nouvelle Vague’s Olivier Libaux skipping through “Le Petit Succès” behind Barbara Carlotti.
Then, at about track seven, Music of Paris changes direction and jaunts off into café jazz, gypsy swing, and musette. Now we’re in Django Reinhardt territory. This second mini-album is longer than the first, and if you were enjoying the little EP that sounded like a visit to the Filles Sourires blog then this change is going to come as an unpleasant surprise. Where has the relaxed, delicious singing gone? Why are we being hit with an accordion? The musette of Les Costauds De La Lune, crisp and frilled as the edges of a well-fried egg, where did that spring from all of a sudden? We jump from the modern “Quand Je Suis Ivre” of Pauline Croze to tracks from, to quote the notes, “the golden age of recorded Parisian music: the 1930s and 1940s.” There’s old Jo Privat, Tony Murena, and Sidney Bechet who died in 1959. They rollick and twiddle. The mood of the album performs an abrupt and lasting switch. The atmosphere of Loizeau and Lafore is shattered and never returns.
It’s as if World Music Network wanted to release a follow-up to their Rough Guide to Paris Café Music but for some reason decided that it wasn’t complete without a bit of Putumayo tucked in front of it. Surely there’s more to Paris than this? If you’re going to include recent examples of chanson then what about some of the post-musette genres? Where is the slangy French hip-hop, the experimental electronic tracks? The compiler tries to get around it by mentioning rock and rap and the music of “Migrants from the former French empire [who] added their sounds to this melting pot,” then insisting that “including all these styles on the compilation would have turned The Rough Guide to the Music of Paris into The Rough Guide to the Music of the World” but this sort of argument, which sounded convincing when it showed up in the notes to The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil, sounds less convincing here. If there was room for more than one example of chanson and more than one example of jazz then there was room for a few of those other things as well. These compilers are supposed to be our authorities, our guides, but in this instance it sounds as if our man has decided not to lead us but instead shrugged, decided that we’d be satisfied with some music that sounded generally charming and French, and given up.