28 November 2007

Eric Taylor
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Ain't no gamble...

Nothing from Eric Taylor is ever a gamble – you know you’re going to hear incredibly well-written songs, delivered honestly and without pretension. His writing is some of the most literate in music – but its point of view is not one looking down on his characters from on high…he looks his subjects in the eye and in the heart. The people who populate his songs live at street level, not in ivory towers – they keep to the barrooms and pool halls, the late-night card games, the threadbare carnivals scraping to make enough to get from one town to the next. Couples scratch to survive life with each other – it works or it doesn’t, but the heartbreak and the joy are just as real as those felt by folks living comfortably in the suburbs. In Taylor’s songs, streets are dark and rainy, and many time more than vaguely threatening – but to the people who live there, it’s their life, nothing more and nothing less, and they make the best of it with what resources they can muster. That doesn’t mean they’re without hopes and dreams – and while those hopes and dreams might or might not ever be realized, they’re sometimes all they have. Much of the time, it’s all that keeps them going. One of Eric’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his ability to get inside these folks and translate what they’re feeling and experiencing into tunes that afford the listener – if even a small effort is made – a taste of that side of life.
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Hollywood pocketknife might well be the best album Eric has released in many years – and considering the consistent high quality of his work, that’s saying something. There’s a feeling of relaxed ease in the arrangements, coupled with his usual sharp focus on characters, events and emotions – everything fits together like it grew into a whole on its own, naturally. All of the songs are originals with the exception of three – ‘The highway kind’, by Eric’s old friend, the late Townes Van Zandt; ‘A matter of degrees’, a fine song by Susan Lindfors; and the traditional Civil War era song ‘Rally ’round the flag’, poignantly offered with help from Steve Fromholz, Vince Bell and other friends, fittingly recorded on the 4th of July.

The album opens with the title track, filled with musings on mingling with figures of a bygone era, interacting with them – it’s like listening to the daydream mutterings of someone with a drink in their hand, across the table in a bar. ‘…I’d make myself a different life, carve it out of Hollywood…’ Characters drift in and out of the narrative: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe ( ‘…flowers from DiMaggio followed everywhere she goes – but I can hear her laughin’…’ ), Robert Mitchum ( ‘…the madman preacher – I’d teach him how to play the clarinet…’ ), Barrymore, Chaplin, Richard Burton. A daydream, yes – filled with sadness and hope at the same time.

‘Carnival Jim and Jean’ vividly evokes the struggles involved in relationships, present in any level of society – in this case between a man who knows nothing but working in a carnival, running whatever scam or hustle he needs to survive, and the woman who is yearning for more: ‘…say the smell of cotton candy ’bout to make you sick – you won’t do no better without me…’, he tells her. The singer lists the woman’s faults, but admits ‘…Lord, I get lonesome when I can’t find her…’ ‘Postcards, 3 for a dime’ is another great relationship song, a skillfully woven two-sided conversation – she berates him for his drinking, saying ‘……I’m goin’ to find myself a decent man, and he’ll whip you if you come up there…’ Locales with names like the Cotton Bottom Lounge and the Bamboo Club are made palpable by Eric’s narrative skills. The song ends with the man, writing a postcard to her from prison, admitting ‘…I’m doin’ six, straight six for interstate flight – I’m no damn good, I guess you’re right…’

‘Olney’s poison and the Houston blues’ is a wonderful song filled with memorable characters and places that are made complete and real, even if they’re only mentioned, by the images their names and descriptions evoke – it’s also an appreciative nod to Eric’s old friend, another great songwriter, David Olney. The melody and guitar line gently echo David’s song ‘Little bit of poison’ (from Olney’s wonderful 1999 album Through a glass darkly). Eric’s reading of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘The highway kind’ is nothing short of brilliant – it’s an aching plea (I’d almost call it a prayer because of its sincerity and honesty) for the love and security all of us crave deep inside, feeling it just beyond our reach.

One of the most moving songs on the album is ‘The peppercorn tree’ – the singer remembers his childhood and younger adult years, filled with good intentions and missteps, foolishness, heartfelt yearnings and good intentions. The memories are bittersweet, replete with hindsight that’s at least close to 20-20, but without regrets – there’s a gentle acknowledgement that life has been as good or better than was expected, even with its pitfalls and the stumbles that were made. The gratitude to the singer’s wife is quietly touching: ‘…she never asked about the river, the cane or molasses, this old hot rod boy wearin’ mirror sunglasses…she never asked about the trouble with Jackson Lee…’, painting an affirming picture of the gift of unconditional love. The song concludes with an ambiguous image: ‘…now she’s out there by the peppercorn tree…yeah, she’s layin’ out there by the peppercorn tree…’ – I’m left wondering if she’s alive or dead. In the afterglow of the song, though, it’s the expression of memories and feeling of contentment that lasts longer than anything else.

Eric provides his usual stellar guitar work and the perfect voice for his songs – he’s joined by Susan Lindfors (acoustic guitar and vocals – including an especially wonderful job on ‘A matter of degrees’), Daryl Webb (keyboards), Eric Demmer (alto saxophone), Mathias Schneider (electric guitar on ‘Better man’), James Gilmer (percussion) and Rock Romano (bass, background vocals – he also engineered, mixed and mastered the recording at his studio in Houston).

I think it’s safe to say that this is yet another Eric Taylor album that will never ‘grow old’ – the songs will age well, like fine wine. As the year go by, they’ll taste even better to our ears, revealing more with every listen. This album isn’t scheduled to appear in stores in the US until January 2008 – but you can get it now by ordering it through Eric’s website (link below), where you can also hear samples from this and Eric's other recordings. Pass Hollywood pocketknife up at your peril – it’s a treasure. It cuts to the bone.

27 November 2007

François Lazarevitch
+ Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien
Danses des bergers, danses des loups
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musique merveilleuse qui vit et respire…Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
It’s a razor’s edge to walk, documenting a traditional form of music in an almost scholarly fashion without making it feel cold – on Danses des bergers, danses des loups (Dances of shepherds, dances of wolves), François Lazarevitch et Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien pull it off with a life-affirming vitality that is completely in touch with the popular origins of this music among the down-to-earth people who have created and embraced it for centuries in central France. This is essentially dance music – it has been played more or less in the same form in the small towns, villages and farms of the region almost since its inception. In a society where hard work – often with meager rewards, simple survival being one of them – was the daily norm, entertainment that we might view today as a ‘perk’ of life, a mere distraction, was in effect an absolute necessity for retaining one’s sanity, for blowing off a little steam and releasing natural pent-up frustrations. The opportunity to relax a bit, to mingle with neighbours, was – and should still be, truth be told – a vital part of life itself.
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François Lazarevitch + Gilles Poutoux
Lazarevitch has assembled a stellar cast of musicians for this outing. He performs on cornemuse (French bagpipes), sings the one song on the disc, and adds foot rhythm to several tracks, as well as serving as the director of the project. The list of other players reads like a veritable who’s-who of French traditional music: Basile Brémaud (violon); Anne-Lise Foy (vielle à roue), who has played with Patrick Bouffard, Trio DCA, Toc Toc Toc and several other fine groups / projects; Gilles Poutoux (accordéon diatonique), who is a very capable player of both French and Irish traditional music, and has worked with Emmanuel Pariselle and others; and Dominique Paris (cabrette), one of the most respected performers of French traditional music today. The arrangements are varied – some with the full ensemble, some played by various combinations in quartets, trios, and duos, along with a couple of solo cabrette sets. Everything is pieced together perfectly – if not for the details given in the notes concerning the tunes that have been combined into sets, one would think that each track is a single work unto itself, with varied melodic sections.
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Dominique Paris + Basile Brémaud
Speaking of the notes – they’re detailed and informative, extensive without being too dry. Lazarevitch writes about the individual tracks, as well as presenting a background on the history of piping in the region, relating stories about the powers of sorcery and magic associated with the music, with the religious implications inherent in such associations: ‘People have always been fascinated with the bagpipe with its strong, continuous sound, and its connection with the animal. Symbolic or decorative motifs add to its mystery; using traditional techniques, a bagpipe may be inlaid with tin, engraved, decorated with mirrors, and so on. In filling the skin with air, the musician breathes life into the animal, which he clasps to his body to keep it under control. But is this a good beast or a bad one? A creature of God or a beast of the Devil? Likewise, is the dance played on the bagpipe a gift of God or an invention of Satan?’ There is also an article included, by Naik Raviart, on the origins of one specific dance, the bourée.
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Anne-Lise Foy
This is a great CD – the music is presented with incredible skill coupled with living warmth. It’s lively, it’s beautiful and moving – and, like all well-performed dance music, it makes it hard to keep your feet still. Too many people shy away from wonderful music when they hear the word ‘bagpipes’, usually remembering the sound of the Scottish highland pipes, which can admittedly be loud and a bit daunting for the casual listener. Bagpipes come in all shapes and sizes, and with all sorts of sounds – the cornemuse, like its Irish cousin the Uileann pipes, has a very beautiful, almost vocal quality to it. It’s an extremely compelling sound. The cabrette (which I’ll admit to knowing nothing about until a short while ago) is basically a smaller set of pipes without the accompanying drones – it’s played throughout central France by people of all ages and both genders – it makes an interesting and appropriate co-voice alongside the cornemuse.

I ordered this CD to include in my collection as an example of this particular genre of traditional music – I knew it would be high-quality, well-performed music, given the performers involved…but I had no idea I was going to enjoy it so much, or find myself listening to it so often. It’s always nice to be surprised in this way.

Check out the samples at the cdRoots site (click here).

25 November 2007

Emmanuel Pariselle
La Nonchalante

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Laissant la chanson mener la manière...

No matter the language, a great song is made even greater when the performer allows it to override his or her own ego – the song wears the performer like a sentient glove, each of them enhancing the other. When this happens, it’s a sheer wonder – a delight for both the performer and the listener. This is a rare enough occurrence – when it happens consistently over the course of an entire recording, it’s a true treasure. Such is the case with Emmanuel Pariselle’s La Nonchalante – even understanding very little French, I can’t get enough of this album. Tunes from it pop into my head hours or days after hearing it – that’s some pretty amazing ‘staying power’.
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Emmanuel plays with La Bergère, a French folk trio I’ve recently discovered – one of my favorites of late. He’s an incredibly accomplished musician, skilled on diatonic accordion and concertina, as well as low whistle. His technical abilities are obvious when you hear him perform – but like the great accompanist he is, he knows how to support instead of overplay, an extremely important component whether he’s playing in an ensemble or, as is the case here, on his own project. Overplaying can not only apply to other musicians with whom one is performing, but to the songs themselves – and letting these songs shine through as the gems they are is one of the best things about this album. He has played on countless recordings and as a part of a large number of ensembles – he has also given classes and workshops, in France and abroad. When I found the listing for his solo CD, I ordered it immediately – in my haste, the fact that the website mentioned ‘songs’ was completely lost on me, and I was expecting to receive an instrumental recording. When I received it and popped it into the player, I was surprised – but any misgivings quickly gave way to complete enjoyment. Emmanuel delivers these songs with ease and grace, without over-emoting or any unnecessary instrumental flourishes. There are several fine originals; some by other writers, contemporary and otherwise;, and some traditional – there’s even a piece by the great Irish harpist Turlough Ó Carolan (1670-1738), ‘Captain O’Kane’, brilliantly performed by Emmanuel, coupled with one of the traditional songs.

On La Nonchalante, he plays diatonic accordion and concertina, as well as singing all the songs. He’s joined by some notable guests here and there – his bandmates from La Bergère, Sylvie Berger (vocals) and Julien Biget (acoustic guitar); Myriam Added (accordions); Alfred Den Ouden and Philippe Prieur (cornemuses), and Gabriel Yacoub (vocals). The album was produced by Yacoub, who wisely opted to record it ‘live’ at the house of friends in Flanders – the result is a recording that is amazing in its feeling of ease and naturalness, difficult qualities to achieve in the sometimes cold atmosphere of a studio, no matter how ‘warm’ the atmosphere might be. Listening to this CD, I’m left with the feeling that I’ve been party to a gathering of friends sitting around a big kitchen table playing and singing these wonderful songs – it’s one of the most relaxed and intimate discs I’ve heard in ages.
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Without understanding the lyrics, it’s hard to comment in depth on the meanings of the songs, of course – but I have some favorites. ‘Les mangeaux d’terre’, written by Gaston Couté (1880-1911) and Maurice Duhamel (1884-1940), is a great song looking back on the authors’ memories of growing up in the countryside, and of the changes they see every time they return.

Emmanuel dedicates his original song ‘L’auberge de la double écluse (The inn of the double lock)’ to three other accordionists with whom he has worked: Martin O’Connor, Christian Maes and Gilles Poutoux – and to the memory of sharing a few rounds with them in an inn, passing conversation while watching the children of the lock-keeper dart in and out – there are images of the passing of time, shadows deepening, gentle and memorable camaraderie, ending with the singer enjoining the listener to stop in – ‘it is not the most beautiful canal, they are not the best white wines – but come to spend an enjoyable moment there near the stove, if you are hungry or thirsty, come there where the barges stop…’

‘Hier au soir embarquant’ follows – a traditional Acadian song, performed a cappella by Emmanuel, Sylvie and Gabriel. The translation I managed is very rough – but it appears to be sung between a young woman and her lover, who is about to sail away to sea. She is expressing her sorrow but noting that ‘…the child that I carry will not suffer the same sad fate – it will never know its father…’ The three singers’ voices blend together beautifully – as they do on several songs from the two CDs by La Bergère. It’s a type of harmony that seems to be found quite a bit in French traditional song – I don’t know the technical name for it, but it sounds relaxed and almost impromptu, though I’m certain it’s precisely structured. At any rate, it’s simply lovely.

The translations are made more difficult – at least for me, with my limited knowledge of French and the questionable (at best!) results from Babel Fish – by the frequent use of uncommon contractions. There are letters dropped all over the place, and I’m guessing most of the time as to what was left out – the results are haphazard most of the time, sometimes impossible. Someone with more of a working / conversational level of French will no doubt make more sense of things. That being said, even without understanding each and every song to its depths, this recording is extremely enjoyable. Samples of the first ten tracks (there are fourteen altogether) are available at the Home Records site (just click on the song titles).

When it comes down to it, these songs simply, honestly and compellingly sing the truth – whether the subject is country life, the heartbreak of lovers parted by the ocean, the hard life of a prostitute, the wreck of a canal barge, or simply memories of times gone by. The feeling carried by the songs, through Emmanuel’s unaffected, completely un-egotistical singing and his incredible skill on his accordion or concertina, comes through with a life of its own, with a simple dignity that raises it far above maudlin nostalgia and into the realm of living history. These are memorable melodies that have the power to move the spirit of the listener, as they obviously moved the spirit of the performers. This album should appeal to anyone who appreciates folk music in its truest form – I can’t recommend it highly enough. One more great purchase from cdRoots.
link :

22 November 2007

L’Ham de Foc
other places…other times…
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Cor de porc (2005)

When I describe specific music as having the power to ‘carry me away’, the tendency might be to infer that the music is meditative, relaxing, ambient – but there is power in all forms of music, and when it’s performed with the right dash of what can only be termed ‘magic’, any music can have that transportative ability…
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It is the Middle Ages. The sun is hot – there is barely a breeze in this hamlet situated at the crossroads of two trade routes leading to faraway, exotic places. A group of travelers arrives – they find what shade they can, unrolling blankets and opening boxes, revealing an array of musical instruments – as the villagers look more closely, they see many that are unrecognizable. The travelers are a diverse lot – many have countenances and wear clothing that only deepen the mystery of their origin. They arrange themselves in a semi-circle and begin to tune their instruments. After a few minutes of preparation, a man who has situated himself in the center of the arc begins to turn the crank of a vielle à roue – a hurdy-gurdy. The characteristic drone sets in, and one or two of the other players begin to strum their instruments, establishing a strong rhythm. A reed flute picks up the melody, soaring above the heads of the listeners. Two percussionists strengthen the beat – one holds a frame drum in one hand, striking it with his other palm; another, sitting cross-legged on the ground, positions two drums before him and begins coaxing sounds that are almost vocal from them with his fingertips, giving the villagers their first taste of the tabla. A long-haired woman in a flowing skirt joins in with a tambourine, dancing almost trance-like – one moment she seems to float above the ground, the next she stamps her feet in the dust, raising a wraith-like cloud. She begins to sing…her words shape a living, breathing world in the minds of those gathered around…
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L’Ham de Foc (their name means ‘Fish-hook of Fire’) are a duo from Valencia, in Spain – Mara Aranda sings; Efrén López plays an amazing array of instruments from all over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. His ‘arsenal’ includes (but is not limited to…) rabab, santur, ud, lavta, lauto, citola, cargola, guitarró, viola de roda, langeleik, trompa marina, çümbüs ud, çümbüs tanbur, tanpura, cura, baglama, divan saz, maydan saz, qanun, pandero quadart…you get the idea, I’m sure. I won’t even attempt to describe all of these here – click on the link below to the band’s website, and you’ll find a tab there marked ‘instruments’, which will lead you to a page with information on all of these and more. There are guests on the CD – as well as at L’Ham de Foc’s live appearances. The sound can get dense, but everything – even the instruments that might not otherwise be heard together – sounds as if it belongs.
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The CD title, Cor de porc, translates as ‘Pig heart’. The notes explain that it ‘…suggests the idea of the eternal coming and going through life with its sadness and the natural imperfection which makes us (both musicians and the rest of the human race) like a pig attempting to wrench notes from a harp, when comparing with the ideal of perfection that we have. However much a man evolves, studies, investigates and wastes sleeping hours in the madness of being, he will never be more than this, a lonely pig with eternal insatisfaction like a hump.’
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The songs, as near as I can tell from the booklet, are sung in Catalan, which is spoken in Valencia and Catalonia in Spain, and in Andorra – it’s classified as a Romance language, and is similar to Occitan. The lyrics themselves – thankfully offered in translation – are the solid stuff of which traditional music all over the world is made: cautionary tales; tales of loves won and lost; stories of the joys and sorrows, the difficulties of life. Some are in the form of allegories whose meaning is intended to be passed to the listeners in such a way as to keep both the musicians and the audience safe from whatever powers-that-be might feel threatened by the message they bear. Forces of nature are given life and sentience; animals and plants are endowed with the powers of thought, interacting with humans in ways that border on the magical. Symbolism abounds – at times its meaning seems clear, at others it’s barely discernable through a haze that is almost palpable.
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The music itself is incredibly powerful, even in its most delicate, ethereal moments. It can be felt in one song as a gentle breeze that is barely existent, or as a pond so still that the surface is an unbroken mirror, offering a reflection so clear and true that it is hard to tell the real sky from its twin. It can swell with the power of a wind off the sea, sweeping everything and everyone before it, powerless to resistance. There are times when it feels as if it would be impossible for the sound to build to a higher level – not in terms of sheer volume (anyone can do that, right…?), but wielding a force that is alive and vibrant, climbing plateau after plateau.

Indulge yourself. Here’s a video of L’Ham de Foc in concert in Barcelona, 17 February 2005, performing ‘Encara’ from Cor de porc

Encara (Still)
(Mara Aranda / Efrén López)

Who will remember me after today?
I shut my eyes, and I’m still alive…
my mother starts crying…
the sweet smell of quince jelly.
Who will lead me to the memory after the pain?
A chill hit me like a punch.
Finally peace in my temples.
Oblivion will come where memory used to be.
There’s a silence coming from every word.
Dance of candles that watch with a blink of melancholy,
ringing at the entry where, lying on my back, I listen…
What will they say about this tragedy?
Never mention my name again!
The wait will come like the condolence.
Finally peace in my temples.
Oblivion will come where memory used to be.
There’s a silence coming from every word.
Dance of candles that watch with a blink of melancholy,
fateful sound shivers over the door,
wind that arrives at odd times…
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L’Ham de Foc have two earlier albums available: U (1999) and Cançó di dona i home (2002). They have a brand-new recording as part of a ‘parallel project’, Aman Aman, entitled Musica i cants Sephardis d'Orient i Occident, which is dedicated to Sephardic music. Amazon wants $28 for this – cdRoots has it for $16.99, one more reason I keep going back to their site to shop. They also have the first two L’Ham de Foc recordings...I've already put in an order for them, based on the quality of Cor de porc.
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Check out the website link – there’s an incredible amount of information to be found there. If you do nothing else, listen to the sound samples…! These folks sound like no one else...!
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21 November 2007

Bugel Koar
dancing with the wax doll...
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These two CDs absolutely knock me out. I bought Ar solier after reading about it online – it was only a couple of days after it arrived that I turned around and ordered Nebaon! I knew I had discovered something very special indeed in Bugel Koar – since the discs arrived, I think I’ve listened to one or both of them every other day or so. They’re simply extraordinary.

Bugel Koar (the name means ‘Wax Doll’ – possibly a metaphor for the malleability of their music) are a duo from Brittany. Marthe Vassallo (voix) and Philippe Ollivier (bandonéon, accordéons diatonique et chromatique, accordina, samples et montages sonores) are amazingly talented and imaginative musicians who are steeped in the traditional music of their region. Their work as a duo is founded upon this strong foundation – their talent and the fire of their creativity are charting a path in expanding their art, taking Breton music into the new century without sacrificing its history or turning their backs on its long tradition. It’s a difficult road to travel – many individuals and groups, from various countries, have tried and failed.
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The songs – composed and sung mostly in Brezhoneg (the Breton language) – run the gamut lyrically. They include love songs, humorous jabs at the compulsively fashion-conscious, songs of advice from one generation to another, social commentary, and the downright macabre, dealing with murder, rape, infanticide, suicide and more…all the stuff of which great traditional songs are made. Everything is handled with care and thoughtfulness – Marthe’s voice is a beautiful instrument, capable of expressing a plethora of emotions with strength and clarity…and Philippe’s skill on his instruments complements her wonderfully, sometimes backing with solid chord clusters, sometimes playfully putting out an intricate melody in counterpoint to her vocal line. At times, I can hear what seem to be ‘echoes’ of Hanns Eisler – it could be the melodies themselves, or the sound of the bandonéon / accordion being close in nature to that of the harmonium, which I associate with the songs of Eisler (thanks to Eric Bentley’s wonderful recordings). There’s also a definite theatrical element to Bugel Koar’s work, which is of course also present in Eisler’s vocal music.
There are guest musicians on both recordings as well, adding their creative touches to the overall sound sensitively and to great effect. Most of the arrangements could be called sparse – even the ones which feature 3-4 extra players never get so dense that they override the mood and meaning of the lyrics, which are offered graphically in the enclosed booklet, with translations in French, along with summaries and background information in English.
And the packages…! These CDs come in oversized digipaks with cardstock booklets inside – they’re some of the most graphically beautiful I’ve come across, adding immeasurably to the concept and effectiveness of the project as a whole. The duo is obviously oriented visually as well as musically – the photos of Bugel Koar in performance, as well as information available on their website (and through links available there) indicate that they’re involved in other projects. Marthe is a member of the Breton fest-noz band Loened Fall (which translates 'The wild beasts'). I’ll address their music later, in a separate post – it’s amazing. Philippe participates in multiple musical and multi-media projects – I’ve come across his name as a performer and an engineer on more traditionally-oriented recordings. It’s great to see creative people fuelling their art by expanding it in more than one direction.

Track standouts? There are so many – I can honestly say that I love each and every tune on both of these CDs, and I hear new elements and discover subtle nuances with each listen...but I'll mention a few details...
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Ar solier (The attic), released in 2000, starts with ‘Ar spes (The ghost)’, co-written by Marthe and Philippe – the singer asks ‘Will this house be the one I’ll never feel the urge to leave?’ of an apparition who sits silently in front of the cold fireplace. She refers to him as ‘my friend, my obsession, and my punishment’, concluding that ‘now the house is inside me, and I could never, ever leave it’ – it’s a chillingly beautiful song.

The next song, ‘An Aotroù ’r C’hleuzioù (M. de Cleuzioù et Jeannette Riou)’ tells the story of a love-gone-wrong. The local lord (disguised as a beggar to determine how charitable his peasants might be) is rebuked when he asks to sleep with one of their daughters – when the girl, Jeannette, later goes to the manor house to ‘make up’ for her parents’ mistake, she is told by a maidservant that the lord is already engaged to a noble girl. She commits suicide by throwing herself into a pond – when her body is found, the lord renounces his wealth. The notes end with ‘Maybe he did love her after all. Perhaps he was not engaged. We do not know.’ – an enigmatic song, like many in traditional music. The arrangement begins simply, with Marthe delivering a tenderly beautiful a cappella opening – Philippe’s accordéon enters quietly, building his support as the story unfolds, becoming more assertive as it vividly portrays the more frantic and disturbing elements of the tale, then once again quieting for the conclusion. The whole thing is masterfully conceived and delivered.
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Another great framing can be heard in ‘Ar verc’h hag ar vamm (Mother and daughter)’, in which the young woman asks, ‘Tell me, mother, why do you disapprove of my sweetheart?’ Her mother lists her specific objections (‘He’s not much of a worker, dear, and he’s got too much money. I tell you, if you marry him you may have bread, but it will be soaked with your own tears.’ The daughter retorts, ‘And I tell you, mother, that if I don’t marry him you can prepare my shroud and the wood for my coffin’. It’s an age-old conversation, repeated in every generation since the beginning of time, and one addresses countless times in traditional song – an eternal dynamic between mothers and daughters. Marthe sings this song over piano accompaniment by Frédérique Lory, and the song ends with her layered voices singing verses from well-known regional songs – ‘other mothers and other daughters…’, conclude the notes.
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‘Ar C’hiz Nevez (The latest fashion)’ takes a humorous and playful – but not completely unserious look – at the compulsion present in each generation to follow whatever trends pop up, describing the scarves, stockings, dresses and shoes that the rich and poor alike are buying, ‘all sport the same disguise’. The comments end with ‘Girls, this was at least 110 years ago, so draw your own conclusions’.
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‘Ha hirie ’h eo? (Is today the day?)’, the first track of Nebaon! (released in 2004) lets the listener know right from the start that Bugel Koar are not allowing their imaginations to stand still – it opens with rhythmically layered samples of car engines, slamming doors, cell phone rings and other sounds (put together by Philippe), with Marthe singing ‘Is today the day I shall be seen, betrayed, judged, lost? Is today the day I shall make a mistake – today on the road – be wounded, be lost?’, voicing the uncertainty of confronting each and every step in life.
‘Ar c’hontilli (The knives)’ continues on a similar theme, describing the unreality and danger of life itself from the point of view of a performer who stands on stage while knives are thrown at her: ‘I take a deep breath and stand still as the blade whistles past my face. My image is still pinned to the board when I walk off stage, danger and to be saved are my job. I can’t control anything, can’t help but think of all the ways I could die if you missed by ten, by nine, by eight…You still haven’t done me in, Didn’t you want to, or is it just that you can’t aim straight?’ Even in translation, the song makes an effective transition from a simple story of a carnival performer to a deeper observation about the pitfalls of relationship dynamics.

‘Al lutig (The nightlight)’ addresses the question ‘What can man do to man?’ – the song was inspired by the story of a mother and daughter in a World War II concentration camp. The mother undressed as ordered and sat on a stool to have her head shaved by another prisoner. When her daughter’s turn came, the mother took the scissors from the prisoner and cut her daughter’s hair herself – injecting a mother’s touch of love into an unimaginably horrific situation. The comments note: ‘Further than the extremes of faith, life and murder, beyond reach of hate and denial, there is a tiny invisible thread, a mother who comes to crop her daughter’s hair. However dim the spark might be, it is a light to us in the darkest night.’ A dark, dark song – but one ultimately of hope.

One of the most beautiful songs on Nebaon! – and one of the most unusual arrangements – is ‘Me a garfe, koantennig (I love the beautiful one)’. It’s a traditional song, sung by Marthe over what sounds like a melody played on struck metal tubes (she’s credited with ‘koarophone’ as well as vocals on this track), relating the story of a shoemaker proposing to his love with such eloquence and honesty that he wins her heart over his two rivals: ‘How I would like to sleep by your side, in a bed made of golden wood with lace trimmings, an orange at each corner, and a little bird on each orange singing the lord to sleep on his lady’s bosom’.

‘Marc’hadour (Shopkeeper)’ returns to the theme of following fashion voiced in ‘Ar C’hiz Nevez’ on Ar solier – but with an important difference. Instead of clothing, the shopkeeper in this tune is offering the fears and dangers of life itself: ‘Come in and have a look, I sell only the trendiest items for all the family: wolves, floods, fires, leprosy, cruel kings, bad reputations…Madam, why don’t you buy one of our new terrors? Your anxieties and fears are really out of date – or maybe our classic: anguish that you could even pass on to your children. I sell every single one of the thousand ways there are to lose and to die. In the catalogue, you can find out how to escape them all…except one.’

‘Chom (Staying)’ is a short, bittersweet tune by Marthe, perhaps reflecting on the advice of the mother in ‘Ar verc’h hag ar vamm’ from the previous album: ‘One last kiss before leaving, be careful on the road – and then the bedroom is empty and silent. Oh mum, how right you were!’ ‘Hindsight is 20-20’, as they say – true in any language, any culture.

Another great song about perseverance in the face of strife and danger is ‘Me ’mo (My way)’, written by Marthe. Dark images abound, but the voice of hope and determination comes through: ‘The winds are icy. Burials multiply. The war gets closer. All the sorrows of others are like hands pulling the strings of my corset. Who will it help when I am choked? Keep that soup of yours, it tastes of blood, sour wine and salt. Instead, I’ll have good news even if we have to invent it, stars in the sky even if we have to stick them there, and fleshy dreams even with my eyes open…I swear we’ll never, ever regret today’s world.’ The arrangement is played as a waltz, with almost a carnival atmosphere, belying the lyrical subject-matter – an extremely effective contrast.

‘Son an hanternoz (Midnight song)’ is haunting and beautiful, filled with images of night-musings and insomnia, sung by Marthe over Philippe’s spare bandonéon accompaniment: ‘All the good people are sound asleep behind locked doors, yet I can’t give in. I am bound to lose something if I sleep now…Could it be the memory of the beginning that stops me resting, a fear that the end might come?’
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The album ends with a lovely, gently nostalgic look back at the innocence and carefree time of childhood, comparing it to the reality of adult life, with its worries and pain joining the joys it brings – the two realities are linked by the memory of time spent by a river, which is turned into a metaphor for life: ‘I am watching you sleep…In childhood summer days we used to throw dead leaves into the river and watch, laughing, to see whose leaf would drown last. Now I can’t take my eyes off your chest, I can hear the river again and feel the flow making and breaking in your blood. Joy and despair choke me, settling accounts before the river’s end.’
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I find the image of the man on the cover of Nebaon! to be very appropriate – he seems to be searching for something, looking out upon a world that is desolate and strange and dark, emerging from the hole where he has kept himself safe. The music of Bugel Koar is a living, searching thing – with their feet planted firmly in the traditional music and culture of Brittany, Marthe Vassallo and Philippe Ollivier are seeking ways to reach out into the darkness, using every tool at their disposal to help themselves – and their listeners – better understand our world. This is nothing short of amazing music, folks.

For those fluent in French (or who have the patience to cut and paste into Babel Fish or another online translation service), check out the band’s website (link below) – if nothing else, for the photos. For sound samples, I’ve also included a link to the site for An Naer, the label on which these two recordings appear – they’ve got a small but impressive catalogue of Breton music, including two releases by Loened Fall. Both Bugel Koar CDs are available through cdRoots.


Bugel Koar – official website

An Naer – label website (click on the CD covers for sound samples)

13 November 2007

La Bergère...Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
un rêve, une mémoire, une belle confiance…Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
These two CDs by La Bergère – a band I only discovered recently – are, without a doubt, going to be on my list of top ‘finds’ for 2007. From the opening lines of ‘C’était’, the first track on Ouvarosa, I knew I was onto something very special indeed. These recordings got under my skin and into my musical soul like few others I’ve come across in recent memory. I understand only a little French, and I have yet to find any English translations of the songs online – but even when forced to rely on the sketchy, incomplete versions formed by Babel Fish, it hasn’t kept the sheer poetry and beauty of these songs from coming across. Without getting into analyzing how or why these works affect me so…it’s a combination of the sheer quality of writing and performing that leaves me with the feeling of being entrusted with a confidence, as if I’ve shared an intimate, personal conversation with a friend across a table in a café.

Many of the lyrics evoke childhood – through references to memories, dreams, imagination, games and more, a time of innocence materializes, filled with images that, when placed together like the pieces of a puzzle, form a picture more vivid than that which is possible for ‘mere words’ to produce. This, of course, is the essence of memory: it rarely plays out in the mind like a film dryly documenting exact events of the past – rather, it manifests itself through a combination of sensory elements. Images, sounds, smells, touch sensations, emotions and countless other forces come together to paint a picture more real than any photograph could ever hope to reproduce.
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That being said, this music is, quite simply, beautiful and moving. The members of the trio – Sylvie Berger (vocals), Julien Biget (guitars, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, psaltery, percussion, vocals) and Emmanuel Pariselle (diatonic accordion, concertina, flutes, percussion, vocals) – are masters of their instruments. The arrangements frame the songs and set the mood with perfection. Sylvie’s voice is, naturally, the center of the songs – she sings the lyrics gently and delicately, but never without feeling. Some of the melodies could even be called ‘difficult’, taking unexpected turns that make great demands on her sense of pitch and control – she handles them all in a manner that is deceptive in its seeming ease and completely natural in delivery. The intricacy with which Julien and Emmanuel accompany her – and which is featured on some instrumental selections and sections – is nothing short of perfect. On repeated listenings, I’ve often reached for the ‘backtrack’ button to make sure of what I had just heard – their playing is quietly stunning, melodies and counter-melodies interweaving and separating in arrangements that have to be carefully planned, but which, in their hands, come across as natural and spontaneous.

Many of the songs were written or co-written by Gabriel Yacoub, a founding member of the seminal French new-folk ensemble Malicorne. Sylvie wrote some of the lyrics and melodies, and Julien and Emmanuel contribute also, as well as some of the guest musicians. Some lyrics are drawn from historical literary sources as diverse as Victor Hugo, Paul Fort and Carson McCullers. Piecing together such a patchwork of written material can be a difficult matter – here, everything fits perfectly.

There are several guest musicians on each CD, all of whom contribute notably to the overall sound and mood of the songs. Both albums are produced by Gabriel Yacoub – he also contributes guitar and vocals, and wrote or co-wrote several of the songs. Frédéric Paris, another seemingly ubiquitous player in the milieu, plays some wonderful clarinet parts and adds harmony vocals here and there, with Willy Soulette performing on bass clarinet and vocals as well – these two absolutely make the arrangement on ‘Petits cailloux’ on Ouvarosa, their wind instruments providing, in effect, vocal harmonies for Sylvie’s lead, along with vocals by Gabriel Yacoub, Solange Panis and Eveline Paris. Julien and Emmanuel can be heard on many of the tracks, their voices blending with Sylvie’s effectively and empathetically – the same characteristics that their instruments embody, a strong indication of not only their playing abilities, but of their dedication and commitment to the spirit of the group.
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The combination on these discs of Sylvie’s beautiful voice with Julien and Emmanuel’s instruments creates some of the most intrinsically ‘French’ music I’ve ever heard – and at the same time, some of the most universally appealing. I’ve played these for a few people who are not in the habit of listening to this sort of music, and they’ve all found them enjoyable – a testament to the power of beautiful music to speak beyond language.

I came across a bit of treasure on YouTube – three videos of La Bergère performing at the Festival des Granges in Laimont in 2006. These were apparently shot from the audience by a fan – not studio quality, but wonderful to find nonetheless. The first is ‘La rivière’ from Fi de l’eau – the trio is accompanied by Gabriel Yacoub and two unidentified vocalists:

The second is ‘Elle dansait’, from Ouvarosa. Julien plays some beautiful guitar on this track, and Emmanuel doubles on low whistle and accordion:

The third track, also from Ouvarosa, is an incredibly lovely a cappella number, ‘Nous irons en France’ – the three voices blend wonderfully:

I can’t recommend these two CDs highly enough – as often as I’ve played them over the course of the last month or so, it’s a testament to the depth of this music that it still sounds as fresh as ever. La Bergère combine elements of traditional French folk with contemporary sensibilities and methods with a success for which most roots ensembles only strive. They’re both available from – you guessed it – cdRoots, at very reasonable prices. There are song samples from the albums available there, as well as on the group’s official site (where the French lyrics are also available) – the links are below.
One last comment: Emmanuel Pariselle has a solo album available, La Nonchalante, on which he demonstrates that he's not only a fine instrumentalist, but a wonderfully natural and effective vocalist as well. I hope to add a piece about it soon.