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Sebastien Tellier: 1 April 2009 - New York

Anita Schillhorn

In an unrelenting fog-machine haze, Sebastien Tellier loped onto stage and made sweet love to the microphone, his various instruments, and a swooning audience full of the hip and the French.

Sebastien Tellier

City: New York
Venue: (Le) Poisson Rouge
Date: 2009-04-01

Tucked into the subculture of French electronic pop, in cahoots with Air and Daft Punk, Sebastien Tellier has a knack for making songs that sound instantly familiar yet entirely new. Mixing French electronica with passionate pop mating calls, he channels a French sexiness that is completely counterintuitive to an American audience -- not handsome, not smiling, not even particularly nice.

In 2008 France nominated Tellier to be their representative for the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual pan-European music contest that is something like American Idol crossed with the World Cup. Usually the musicians are classically kitsch -- glittery costumes rivaling those of figure skaters, choreographed dance moves, cheery choruses, and glitzy backdrops. To give you a better idea of Eurovision style, its biggest cultural legacy is launching ABBA onto the world stage with “Waterloo”.

France, which takes its popular culture very seriously, usually sends crooners channeling Edith Piaf singing songs with titles like “I Have Nothing But My Soul”, and “Love the French Way”.

The choice of Tellier, with his electronica roots and his raw, unpredictable performance style, seemed unlikely. With a beard that rivals Joaquin Phoenix’s, stringy hair to his chin, and huge sunglasses that mask the top half of his wan face, Tellier angles to occupy the empty throne of the unattractive yet potently magnetic musician vacated by Serge Gainsbourg two decades earlier. He planned to sing “Divine”, a breathy orgasm of a song. The French balked, not at the implied sex of the song, nor at Tellier’s writhing delivery of it, but because there was just too much English in it. Tellier complied with the national mood, added a few French words, and was sent off to Belgrade, where the Eurovision Song Contest was held last year. In a long line up of sunny, clean-shaven pop bands who have mastered jazz hands, Tellier manhandled the stage with a row of female back-up singers sporting his signature unkempt hair and beard, and with an un-choreographed performance of “Divine”.

He brought the same energy to the stage of (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York. In an unrelenting fog-machine haze, Tellier loped onto stage and made sweet love to the microphone, his various instruments, and a swooning audience full of the hip and the French.

He began the show with a series of crisp little pop songs clean off his albums. Accompanied by a keyboardist and drummer, he rocks a red Flying V guitar, his ever-present sunglasses, and a white suit with a hint of silver shimmer. His music conjures cinematic desire and melancholy -- he has crafted several film soundtracks, and his song “Fantino” was used by Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation, whose soundtrack is inseparable from the poetic core of the film. In the first half of his show, his songs are gemlike, emotive, flirtatious, finger-licking good, and yet they feel tame. Yes, he caresses the mic stand, French kisses the microphone, and pulls some girl in a little black dress on stage for a brief moment, but the infamous sexual energy which he brings to his shows gets a little lost in the set list.

He played several songs from his 2008 Sexuality -- which, by the way, was on special presale from American Apparel. The album is typical Tellier; its cover evokes 1970s make-out albums, with a landscape of a naked woman in Miami pastels and a tiny lone horseman surveying the scene from one of her breasts. He exudes a sexuality that is both raw and highly polished, and so arch you don’t quite know if he is serious or tongue in cheek when he announces, “This is a song about my bisexuality,” before a song whose chorus is “Bisexualité”.

But of course Tellier is a big tease. After a short sweet set, he coyly walks off stage and waits for the audience to cajole him back, playing out the ritual of hard-to-get that every band engages in with its audience. The audience yells out songs they missed -- his most well known, “La Ritournelle”, and others. Then he comes back, seats himself at a piano, and tears into extended passion plays of his songs with long danceable interludes. He does not play the requisite two, maybe three songs, before thanking the audience and calling it a night. Instead, he launches fireworks with a whole new set colored by an intense attitude. He introduces “La Ritournelle” saying “This is my best song,” and seduces the audience with a ten-minute version. He perches on top of the piano like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, wipes the copious sweat from his brow exposing the balding peaks under his long locks, and prances across the stage like Michael Hutchence in a white suit. With an encore that lasts longer than his original set, Tellier leaves the audience in a post-coital bliss.

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