Review Summary: Ceci n'est Parisien
Bonjour. Ça va bien ? Moi ça va tranquille, merci.
What's your view on Parisian people? Maybe you think they are sophisticated, well-dressed dandies who enjoy baguette and wine, with a famous tendency to adultery - ultimately representing the Frenchest of the Frenchest. While this opinion is not entirely false, it deserves a counterview, one that all other French-speaking people have got of Parisians: they are pedant, arrogant, living symbols of a spoiled brattiness only bourgeoisie could ever create, and deeming anything outside their beloved city a shithole not even worth mentioning - see, I told you they are the Frenchest of the Frenchest. If there's one band that effectively illustrates this duality, it's gotta be Feu! Chatterton. Their music and lyrics transpire both elegance and pretension, of a constant battle between fanciness and ridicule. They just are so French.
It's thus no surprise that the band's core sound was built around French Chanson tropes and instrumentation from the Gainsbourg textbook, with that slight 90s French rock knack brought by Noir Désir. That band was instrumental to the "French Rock" template and influenced tons of artists with their singing style and, most importantly, their poetic and surreal lyrics. Yet Feu! Chatterton have always desired to evolve their music by confronting these very froggy roots to their multiple Anglo-Saxon influences – Radiohead
and LCD Soundsystem
being the most prominent. These new incorporations were already nicely integrated into their 2018 album L'oiseleur
, but it wasn't fully cohesive yet - you could feel they only were present to embellish the already-composed soundscape but did not constitute the basis of said compositions. Three years later, they finally found the perfect alloy between the oh-so-French and the oh-so-arty worlds.
Flashback to the two thousand and twentieth year of the Gregorian calendar. Palais d'Argile
was initially conceived as an almost narrative performance that would have been played on stage during Spring 2020 - you know what happened then. The band therefore reworked the piece to make it a concept album produced by the (non-Daft Punk
member) pope of electronic French music, Arnaud Rebotini - who received the César Award for Best Original Music for the BPM (Beats Per Minute)
movie. And, oh dear, did Rebotini bring a newfound density to the band's sound. Recorded in legendary Brussels studio ICP (where equally legendary French singer/songwriter Alain Bashung
had his habits) with the help of Boris Welsdorf, sound engineer of Einstürzende Neubauten
, the production quality is astonishing, densifying each track's musical universe and fully integrating the synthetic within the organic. Every drum fill is carefully accompanied by a soft synth accentuating the rhythmic regime in place, thus granting a dancy feel to the album - if it makes you think of LCD Soundsystem, well, Rebotini also worked with the Murphy gang.
Opener "Un Monde Nouveau" operates in this vein, its cybernetic nature sublimating the rocky groove brought by guitars and drums alike. Likewise, "Cantique" masterfully blends in the indietronica nods into Feu!'s rockier background into a "shake-yo-ass" post-punk banger epitomizing James Murphy's shadow looming over the project. It almost goes into caricature with "Écran Total", where 80s-like basses work in unison with the organic drums - but! When the kitsch almost feels like it's taking too much space, the band rises together into a crescendo appealing to each of the musicians' intensity. Elsewhere, the synthetic takes over the organic, like on the nostalgic "Cristaux Liquides" or on "Ces Bijoux de Fer", and it's in these moments that the bass' depth is palpable, synths and bass - both performed by Antoine Wilson - offering profound waves to accentuate Raphaël de Pressigny's drumming patterns. Yet, Feu! never forget they started their petite entreprise
as a rock band: 9-minute epic "Libre" sees the two "shredders" Sébastien Wolf and Clément Doumic testify to their love for Television and angular post-punk in general.
"Ok yes that sounds very nice" you might think - and you'd be right to hold such a thought -, "but where's the Frenchness in this"? Well, French chanson nods are mostly displayed through singer Arthur Teboul's delivery, singing in the classic French way - think Jacques Brel
(who's a Belgian dude by the way), Serge Gainsbourg
, or Bashung - but with grandiloquence only women icons like Barbara ever attained - "La Mer" being a prime example of such turgidity. This declamatory way of singing is but a testimony of the band's background. It's so
Parisian - no wonder, the five members met each other at Louis-Le-Grand, one of the most elite Parisian high schools, and all pursued studies in prestigious Parisian universities. The "upper middle class" pédance is just all too evident - Bourdieu would have loved to assimilate these chaps into his Distinction
. There thus lies an underlying pompous - almost show-off - posture that might not displease y'all non-frogs, but it eventually brings back the good old French bourgeois hate only a country modernly built by bourgeoisie could possibly - and very unironically, I swear - hold so dearly. Notwithstanding these Franco-centric considerations, the singer draws not only his singing style from French greats but also his poetry: works from Baudelaire and Apollinaire have been meshed into the lyrics, while Prévert's "Compagnons" is turned into a full musical piece. It's even more impressive that Palais d'Argile
's lyrical content has got absolutely nothing to do with old timers' considerations: acknowledgments to the past are only used for their formulas, not their content. Palais d'Argile
tackles cold modernity with, successively, nostalgia, optimism, and irony, with enough wit and vitality to avoid bleakness. These are tales narrating humanity atrophied by technology, where the dandy feels lost within this brand new world, rubbing nostalgia all over their postmodern gangrene, yet never forgetting to let hope infiltrate their heart. Lyrically, as well as musically, there persists a tenacious eagerness to remember, praise, and eventually craft beauty and elegance.
With all that in mind, this is arguably the band's most subtle record yet, thus suffering from a bit less vigor than their previous albums, but this relative lack of "oomph" nevertheless feels more rewarding thanks to the higher focus on songwriting - the intensity going up to 11 on "Écran Total" is short, but all the more satisfying thanks to the way it naturally flows from the calmer introduction. Palais d'Argile
also does endure a slight midway dull, but, a) this dip in quality is so minimal it could only be referred to as "the least great part of the record", and, b) the abundance of lush textures make every single moment worth its length - and that's a mighty feat for a seventy minutes long album. Truth is, it's extremely rare for a French-speaking record to feature such rich instrumentation - no wonder Antoine Fantoine gave this the good ol' yellow flannel treatment.
En résumé, c'est de la bonne came.