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Paris Combo: Motifs

Michael Mikesell

Its fourth album finds the multiracial French quintet bursting with confidence, catchy melodies, taut arrangements, and unmitigated fun.

Paris Combo


Label: DRG
US Release Date: 2005-01-11
UK Release Date: Available as import
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An album as suitable for listeners seeking respite from worldly troubles as it is for those craving adventure, Paris Combo's lively Motifs is a giddy rush of music that begs repeated listening at ever higher volumes. While based in France and playing music founded in 20th-century chanson, the Combo's members hail not merely from France (singer/accordion player Belle du Berry, drummer François Jeannin) but also from the Mediterranean (the Django-esque guitarist known only as Potzi), Madagascar (double-bass player and second singer Mano Razanajato), and Australia (pianist and trumpet player David Lewis). The Combo writes its own material and -- led by du Berry's velvety alto -- imbues its songs with elements of gypsy, flamenco, and North African music, North and South American jazz, and hints of French bal-musette.

However readily apparent its influences, however, the music is free from any hint of gimmick; there are no ostentatious shows of virtuosity or dramatic shifts in character to suggest a coarse attempt to rub our faces in the group's multiculturalism. What's surprising is how incredibly natural the group sounds when it melds, as in "Ennemis Siamois" ("Siamese Enemies"), Django-style washboard rhythm guitar, classical-tinged piano, reggae-like reverberant utterances, and modern-jazz trumpet while snappy, Latin-inflected bass and percussion guide the ensemble through the song's shifting time signatures. At all turns, this is fun music played by people who sound like they're having fun.

Motifs is the band's fourth studio album since the formation of the Combo in 1995. It follows the group's self-titled 1997 debut, 1999's Living Room, and 2001's Attraction. (Live came out in 2002.) On Motifs, Oz Fritz's production reflects the band's status as a contemporary ensemble rather than a mere nostalgia act, breaking with traditional "tell it like it is" jazz production to present a punchy, almost pop sound with Razanajato's aggressive acoustic bass quite forward in the mix -- a feature that also serves the dynamic thrust of the music.

The arrangements are perfection itself, conveying a nuanced appreciation for the importance -- melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic -- of each element, leaving ample space for the vocals but allowing any given instrument to grab center stage the moment it's appropriate to do so. Potzi's instrumental "Reflet" ("Reflection") showcases an exquisite performance by the Romanian violinist Florin Niculescu.

If I can safely extrapolate from my own experience, it will be clear to anyone with even the most cursory appreciation of French that du Berry sings with a great relish of diction and syntax, bearing out frequent comparisons to Edith Piaf (though du Berry's voice is silkier -- not as husky and not as powerful). In the few passages directly comprehensible to me, du Berry's delivery shows a great attention to the meaning of her lyrics, and listeners with even a passing knowledge of French will have an even easier time than I did appreciating her terse and playful lines, which tend to explore the relationship between the personal and the universal.

According to a source close to the band, "Motus" is about "the importance of opening one's mouth, whether it be in politics or just to talk to one's lover" ("Silence is the same thing / In every language / Words are like seeds that aren't sown / Wherever silence reigns"); the sublime "Etoile pâle" is about "losing someone very dear" ("My eyes are vacant / So my mind connects with other things / And during the night / Without me noticing / You reappear / On my horizon / And I'm astonished"); and the opening "High, Low, In" describes a feeling of being "disconnected from a world that is both impersonally technological and violent" ("I'm heads, I'm tails / Tender beneath my carapace / I turn my back on turbulence / And retreat when faced with violence").

The Oxford Companion to Music quotes the following definition of chanson from Rousseau's Dictionary of Music (1767): "A sort of very short lyric poem, generally upon some pleasant subject, to which an air is added so that it can be sung on intimate occasions, as at table, with one's friends, with one's sweetheart, or even when one is alone, in order for a few moments to drive away boredom if one is rich, and to help one to bear misery and labour if one is poor."

Reading this, it's easy to see why the term "chanson", which arose in the 15th Century, also (and now more commonly) refers to 20th-Century French cabaret music. Further, this definition provides context for a pleasingly ironic aspect of du Berry's lyrics, which are anything but toss-offs "upon some pleasant subject". Motifs proves a beautiful title for the record, since the general notion of "recurring themes" seems to fit du Berry's inescapable concern for contemporary life as nicely as it applies to the group's intention to fashion new and meaningful music founded on styles of old.


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