Music

Various Artists: Champs Elysees Cafe

Maurice Bottomley

Various Artists

Champs Elysees Cafe

Label: Wagram
US Release Date: 2002-04-09
UK Release Date: 2002-04-08
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Eighteen elegant and suitably self-conscious examples of the new sound of France are gathered together in this fashionable collection. Be wary of the disc's subtitle (the finest electro tunes from Paris); the geographical marker is all the clue you need. This is techno-based, jazzy, abstract lounge, heavy on the sample front and with passing nods to a profusion of musical sources.

St. Germain, Llorca, and Laurent Garnier have familiarised us with what is evidently merely the tip of a sizeable (but cool rather than awesome) iceberg. It should by now be stale and clichéd and, indeed, some of the tracks have something of an "ambience by numbers" feel to them. On the whole though, this is yet another example of why those who still sneer at French popular music place themselves in the dinosaur category.

A few of the big names are here: Shazz, Llorca, and, in various guises, Garnier). The bulk of the acts, though, are probably known only to each other. Luscal, Ark, Fab Sioul, Shinju Gumi, Octet, Ana Rago, Soha and Bount have the pseudonymous anonymity we have come to expect from downtempo compilations and although old hands like Julian Jabre are behind some of these incarnations, the evidence is overwhelming. The studios of Paris are awash with sample-obsessed, digital wizards who are making pre and après club music that is rather more imaginative than anything you're likely to hear in the peak-time rooms themselves.

If electro is unhelpful as a term, downtempo is a little too lacking in bounce for some of the tunes. Particularly towards the end of the set -- where Shazz and Peppermint Candy get quite housey -- but even in the Love-Hangover bassline of Luscal's atmospheric opening cut, this is mostly danceable fare. Everything is very relaxed though, frantic thankfully not being a favoured adjective in French club culture.

So if you can cope with house-techno rhythms, a taste of disco, a little blunted trip-hop, some nuevo-acid jazz, a smattering of whimsical pop chanteuserie and a postmodern fondness for allusion, you are in for a good time. No one track will knock you out, but only a couple seem too arch and contrived. From the slowest and moodiest (Eggo's "La Papaye Mobile") to the most conventionally club-stomping (Bount's "Unplug"), there is a richness of textures and a warm overall feel that will please the growing audience for the new smooth that this sort of stuff represents.

I didn't care for the Martin Luther King sample on Williams Traffic's "Free at Last". This music is too comfortable, too well-fed and dressed to feel at ease with attempts at social commentary. Equally the would-be sleazy "Sucubz" by Ark with an absurd Franco-American vocal comes across as merely adolescent. The rhythm track on the other hand is funky house at its finest. Llorca and Shazz provide solid if unspectacular dancers ("I Cry" and "Fallin' in Love" respectively). Both are remixes from their last albums but the majority of the material is being aired on CD for the first time.

On the poppier side Fab Sioul's "Silence" is charming, if a little hippyish. The jazz piano sample on Cassiopee will have you scurrying to your jazz collection but the singing is a little too sub-Moloko for me. On the whole vocals are the weak point of European jazz-house, this CD does little to change that perception.

This is not a major fault, as it is the snippets, steals and the woven patterns that matter here. Cassiopee (that electric piano), IC Funk (that trombone) and Shinju Gumi (everything) all tease and seduce with deft touches and telling juxtapositions. Basslines from Blue Note, toasting from Jamaica and echoes of mid-'80s Chicago flicker past in very evocative style.

Favourites? It depends on your generic preferences. Tech-house types should head for the Jabre collaborations; Peppermint Candy's "Chocolate Girl" and Soha's "Eve" are both worth a place in many a DJ set. More tribally-oriented souls will lap up the warped Afrobeat of Doctor L's "Lost in Da Machine" and Mainstream clubbers may feel more at home with Bertrand Burgalat or Garnier himself.

Whatever the bias of influence, the prevailing mood is mellow, a tad complacent perhaps, but soothing and sophisticated. The slower numbers exude this most effectively and I would give Luscal's "Modelled" and the Eggo and Gumi the nod over their cohorts just for that. Throughout the CD the beats are fresh enough to pass muster, but take second place to the inventiveness of the sampled sounds.

This isn't quite the best Parisian compilation around, but it may be the most representative. Distance, F Comm and Wagram themselves all have offerings that might suit the committed jazz-soul-house fan better. For anyone coming from pop, rock or the mainstream of dance though,Champs Elysees Cafe might be a very good place to start to explore the Nu Cool that has found a suitable home in the clubs and bars of Paris.

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