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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews



1. The French are rude.
2. French food is made with heavy sauces that are impossible to make.
3. French pop music stinks.

The other night was a balmy Indian summer evening here in San Francisco, so we dined al fresco with friends at a pleasant French café. We enjoyed cocktails with an appetizer and waited for our dinner. When dinner came, we all ordered and received more drinks except for one of us, who'd ordered a glass of wine. We heartily ate our steak and pommes frites, mussels and other French fare, but still no glass of wine. We asked the passing waitress three times over 45 minutes for the wine but it never came. Finally, we went up to the bar inside the restaurant. There we saw our waitress totting up dinner checks and talking with a fellow employee. Behind the counter we glimpsed a single glass of wine and our check. When the waitress finished her addition, we caught her eye and said, "We've been waiting quite a while for our glass of wine."

"Who are you?" she replied in front of all in the crowded bar area. "How can I get you a glass of wine if I don't know who you are?"  "We're outside. You've been our waitress and I think that's for us", we said, pointing to the glass.

"I don't know who you are!"

"Good luck with your life. I think you'll need it," we declared as we returned to our friends outside.

The waitress returned with the wine several minutes later and said, "It's very busy tonight."

For the first time in our life, we left no tip at all. It felt pretty good. Our waitress was French, the food was fairly rich and the music in the café was American jazz, presumably because French music is so horrible. Despite this textbook example of the three French myths, we declare to you that while perhaps grounded in some truth, they are indeed myths. Or at least clichés that could be balanced with examples of incredibly gracious French people, glorious simple food that is less trouble than eating American fast food and music that is melodic, unique and sometimes quite moving.

It is more comfortable for me, in the long run, to be rude than polite.
Wyndham Lewis, British author & painter.

The French, Parisians in particular, can be rude.

Our observation is that Americans enjoy casual superficial relationships with shopkeepers, cab drivers, waiters and mail order telephone operators. Americans think telling the whole story of how Brenda's pregnancy was a surprise and what the bridesmaids wore and how long it took to get the dessert is actually of interest to the average store clerk. When they travel, they're really not likely to meet all that many local people except clerks, hotel staff and rental car agents, so these encounters become pretty important. Yanks are a friendly lot on the whole and they are hurt and confused when the typical French clerk looks on with obvious disdain as they describe how breathtaking the view of the Eiffel Tour was or how expensive things are in Paris compared to Main Street. Our impression is that the average Parisian clerk has seen five thousand Americans with backpacks and as soon as they get off work they plan to start enjoying themselves with their friends, not tourists. We've noticed the workers are not effusive, but practical, efficient and professional, particularly in restaurants. Of course there are exceptions on both sides. We remember in our youth visiting the lavatory of a Paris bistro. Coming from America, we were surprised to see an attendant in the foyer between the men's and women's rooms. On our way out, trying not to draw attention to the situation, we quietly placed a tip on the attendant's plate, somewhat embarrassed that someone had to actually hang out in a restroom all day. She called after us, "Excuse Monsieur! The tip! You forgot the tip". We told her we gave her one and she said, "No. I do not think so!" She followed us out of the restaurant; demanding her due and making us feel rather strongly about French etiquette.

On the other hand, we spent several relaxed days in the Pyranees with the family of a friend and from the moment we arrived until the last sip of armengac, it was an ideal weekend and a textbook example of how to treat a guest. The day's events always revolved around food and we suspect the real reason for the hikes was to hunt for mushrooms for the evening meal. The meals themselves took hours and the unhurried, comfortable manner of our hosts was completely at odds with the gorgeous foodstuffs being served. We left thinking: France is good!

If cooking becomes an art form rather than a means of providing a reasonable diet, then something is clearly wrong.
Tom Jaine (b. 1943), British editor of The Good Food Guide.

Everything ends this way in France. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, affairs of state- everything is a pretext for a good dinner.
Jean Anouilh (1910-87), French playwright.

So would you rather dine with Tom Jaine or Jean Anouilh?

In America, French food suffers the same injustice as Italian food. In general, it's not very authentic. Until recently, most Italian restaurants served an odd incarnation of Southern Italian food, completely ignoring the rest of Italy, because most of the East Coast immigrants were from the South. French food in America means "continental" and "continental" means fancy and in general, we Americans have no idea what the French eat on a day to day basis.

Our recent voyage to France provided a huge range of food, from the simple to the sublime. In terms of sauce and complications, we'd say it compares to Italy. And like Italy, the devotion to the best ingredients, most pleasant atmosphere and reverence for food means we'd much rather eat in France than England or America, given the choice.

We'll also add that despite three generous meals a day, we actually lost weight!

 I think no woman I have had ever gave me so sweet a moment, or at so light a price, as the moment I owe to a newly heard musical phrase.
Stendhal (1783-1842), French author.

Our last myth is music. It's true there is a lot of very bad French pop. The worst seems to be French rock. It just sounds funny. Maybe it's because the language sounds so refined and is at odds with the pedestrian guitars and put-on gritty vocals. Perhaps the average Frenchman places more importance on food and sex. We think good French pop succeeds in waves, as music does in most countries. We also think a culture that produces what America does and calls it music should be very careful before throwing too many stones. Our understanding of French music is strictly as a tourist. Until recently, we had quite a bit of Edith Piaf, a few vintage collections and in general we considered French music second-rate. A recent trip included a few manic shopping sprees and we've found the music serves as an even stronger keepsake than the photos, vetiver cologne or the Chien Lunatique plaque we purchased. We don't speak French and we don't know any experts on the music, so our perspective is bound to be somewhat off. We think the period of interest, especially to foreigners, is the period between the wars. We're told that intellectual artists like Juliette Greco are wonderful but we find the language barrier too strong. Many of the melodies are repetitive but some just get under your skin and stay, like a good French meal.

Edith Piaf
L'integrale de ses Enregistrements 1946-63
EMI Pathe DE 7903852 - 7903932

The first stop on any French musical trip would have to be Edith Piaf. No one better represents the good, the bad, the melodies, and the indulgences. Fans of Judy Garland enjoy comparing the two ladies but other than a flair for the dramatic, we really couldn't agree. Both gals may have been rather needy in an obvious sort of way, but Piaf remained first and foremost a great singer throughout her career. In fact, it's amazing how few musical duds there are on this nine-CD set.

If by chance you're not familiar with Piaf, she had a strong voice and a particular way of phrasing. When angry, she almost spits out the lyrics. She was also an incredibly intimate singer, so much so that when we play her records, our dog, Victor Hugo, comes running into the room and stares at the loudspeaker. Maybe he was a poodle in his last life.

Luckily for us, Edith was The Great Piaf almost immediately, so the arrangements and recording quality of these discs are both great. The highlights on this set are many, but along with the big numbers like Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Milord and La Vie en Rose, we particularly like Adieu Mon Coeur, Je T'ai dans la Peau and C'est L'amour. Early on we noticed that longtime friend Marguerite Monnot, who knew her way around a good hook, wrote her best songs. Unfortunately, much of their work together was recorded before 1946, so great songs like Mon Legionnaire must be purchased separately. There's a Polygram label set available of this early work.

Because so many of her recordings were great, it would be safe to purchase one of the countless compilation discs. But to stick to these Greatest Hits packages would be to miss a lot of less popular but equally spectacular music. Keep in mind we're a bit lunatique, but we wouldn't be without the complete sets.

The Piaf legend is well-documented. There are many good biographies available and they make for good reading. She liked her men and her booze, and like Judy Garland, she was pretty much a mess. But oh, what a voice!

Charles Trénet
Y'a D'la Joie: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 2
Frémeaux & Assoc FA082

Boum!: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 3
Frémeaux & Assoc FA083

Antholgie
Angel 724383139323

 

Most of us know Charles Trénet as the composer of La Mer and Que Reste-t-il de nos Amours. In English, La Mer went from being a sweet inspirational ditty to Bobby Darin's seminal '50s big band hit Beyond the Sea. Que Reste-t-il de nos Amours became I Wish You Love, covered by everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Barbra Streisand and it provided Keely Smith with a hit.

While both songs are great examples of French songwriting at its best, we find the years before the war Trénet's best. While all good Frenchmen can easily identify hits like Je Chante, Boum!, Fleur Bleue and Y'a d'la Joie, these songs are relatively obscure beyond French shores, and it's a mystery why. Trénet wrote melodies with great hooks and his good-natured delivery and sense of showmanship should have been easily exported. After the war, Trénet went a bit sentimental and lost much of his edge, writing a few good songs (like La Mer and Coin de Rue), but too often sappy tributes to France or the good old days of le music hall.

Trénet started out his career in 1932 as part of the duo Charles et Johnny with Swiss pianist Johnny Hess. The fellows were having a tough time of things until Josephine Baker convinced producers to include them in a show called Paris-Madrid. The records these two made are apparently very entertaining but to someone who doesn't speak French, their appeal is limited. Hess is a fine pianist and it's obvious the boys are having a good time, but the songs are virtually all novelty numbers with thin melodies that depend heavily on the lyrics. After a couple of tracks one yearns for something with a little more meat. If your French is good, you'll enjoy Charles et Johnny: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 1 (Frémeaux & Assoc FA 081) but the rest of us should pass, especially if you get Boum!: Intégrale Charles Trenet Vol. 2 because it includes 14 songs by Charles et Johnny.

After Trénet went solo, he had great success giving two other artists perhaps their most memorable songs. For dreamy Jean Sablon, the French Bing Crosby, he wrote, to our ears, one of the best songs of the century, Vous Qui Passez Sans me Voir (1936). For Maurice Chevalier, he wrote Y'a d'la Joie (1937). He then wrote and recorded one of the best show-stoppers ever, Je Chante, followed by a string of great songs like Fleuer Bleu, J'ai ta Main and Boum! He was so popular that films were created around his songs but the magic heard on records and in concert didn't make it to the screen. Still, his success was enough of a threat that Chevalier dropped Y'a D'la Joie from his act and refused to sing the moving ballad Menilmontant that Trénet had written for him. Chevalier's loss is our gain as Trénet's version must be superior to anything Chevalier would have attempted. Trénet went on to become one of the French greats, certainly as important as Chevalier in the story of French song, just not quite as exportable.

Trénet stands out for several reasons. His personality was of a gentle buffoon yet he wrote incredibly beautiful melodies around his clowning. What's even more unusual for his time is that he both wrote and performed, a practice not generally attempted until the singer/songwriter era of the late 1960s. Like Edith Piaf, we find it amazing how well the music works without the listener understanding the language.

The Angel release, Antholgie, is available internationally as a single or double set and is probably a good place to start if you've never heard Trénet. It has all of his hits from 1937-1958 so the appeal dims about halfway through, but it's a good overview and the sound is very good. The Frémeaux & Associate releases are all double CD sets and feature Charles Trénet and his contemporaries performing his songs. As mentioned above, Volume 1 is for serious fans only, but the other two are all-around swell. We've just learned of a Volume 4, which should be available by the time you read this.

We've had a rich full life, but some of our strongest memories include the bittersweet feelings of a last morning in Paris, hearing Menilmontant in our head as we bid a silent dramatic adieu to life on holiday. Perhaps it's best to remember driving through the French countryside with a good pal, singing along full voice to Je Chante in our auto; the hot Provençal breeze filling our lungs with inspiration. Granted, the result was closer to speaking in tongues than the French language but you really should have been there.

 

 

 


 



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