Various Artists: French Café

Justin Hopper

Various Artists

French Café

Label: Putumayo
US Release Date: 2003-11-11
UK Release Date: 2003-11-21

In the inevitable backlash against the backlash, France has come to fill not just its traditional role as the emblem of all things suavely cool and savoir-. No, for the first time since the '40s, it seems as if striped shirts, hand-rolled cigarettes and five-o'clock shadow are symbols of resistance, hold-outs against a world gone into a spiraling insanity of anti-pleasure fear and loathing. The martini set in Manhattan may not realize it, but in the talk-show hinterlands of America (i.e., most of it), we still see menus boasting "Freedom Fries" and "Liberty Toast" every day. And that's why any regular U.S. protest-attendee might actually see black-bloc chanters and ranters wearing berets along with their proto-Palestinian neck scarves and Anti-Flag T-shirts.

In this sense, French Café, released by the often redundant but always popular world-music compilers Putumayo, is radical simply by virtue of its release date: Thirteen tracks of luxurious Francophone poetic waxing, without even a liner-note "Thank you" for us savin' those Frogs' asses back in double-ya double-ya two. There's something that still feels revolutionary about the sheer decadence in Serge Gainsbourg's "Marilou Sous la Neige", and it's a lurid I-don't-know-what that builds throughout French Café, peaking in this collection's finest track, newcomer Coralie Clément's breathy and oceanic seduction, "La Mer Opale". Because Clément proves that not only is the tradition of the Parisian café Lolita -- with melancholy melodies matched only by firm femme fatale-attractions -- alive and well, it might be as good as it ever was.

There are nearly as many ways to look at the indefinable concept of "French café music" as there are cafés in Paris. Putumayo, as is their prerogative, has chosen to concentrate on one type of café tradition: not just the chanson singing style, but specifically the decadent-'60s chanson and its predecessors and followers. This leads to surprising omissions from Putumayo's collection, and inevitable comparisons to the Rough Guide series' contribution to the canon, The Rough Guide to Paris Café Music. The Rough Guide disc looked at the many interpretations of the bal musette style, the accordion-based melting pot of gypsy jazz and swing, traditional ethnic music of Paris' many immigrants and cultural conquistadors, as well as chanson. French Café leaves musette out almost completely: for better or for worse, the distinctive plaint of the accordion appears only on San Franciscans Baguette Quartette's "En Douce". Similarly, Django Reinhardt's considerable contribution to what we think of as Parisian jazz is implied, but hardly overtly referenced at all. (Only Sanseverino's "Mal o Mains" does more than wink in the direction of Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli's gypsy swing.) Rather, and to its credit, Putumayo has successfully created a stylistically seamless romp through the underbelly of the café world, using as its spiritual pimp and Svengali the late, great Serge Gainsbourg.

Besides his own contribution, Gainsbourg appears throughout French Café: Two of his explicit conquests, Brigitte Bardot and long-time studio and bedroom collaborator Jane Birkin, appear on French Café, Birkin even singing one of his compositions. The younger artists, such as Mathieu Boogaerts, are audibly aping Gainsbourg's style (in Boogaerts's flimsy Caribbean-café case, with mixed results at best). And Gainsbourg's predecessors, such as the legendary Georges Brassens, when heard in this context, seem to have almost knowingly presaged the later Gaul's coming.

Perhaps that's the greatest strength of French Café's assault on all things stoic and sexless. In 2004, Serge Gainsbourg and his unabashed Gallic mojo is still spiritually alive and kicking in the doors of middle-American teenage bedrooms, like a hay-rolling home invasion. French Café would like Putumayo's general-public audience to understand a little bit more about where that faintly-politicized sex revolt comes from, and that it's still going strong, right under our turned-up noses.





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