Album Review: La Femme – ‘Psycho Tropical Berlin’

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La Femme: a French band plying us with jangling West Coast surf-pop, undercut with doom-laden kraut-coldwave. It’s as unusual as it sounds – Google “surfpop coldwave” and they’re on their own. Add to that mix a serious dose of wackiness and a general Halloween vibe, and the whole thing should be a disaster. Their debut album Psycho Tropical Berlin sounds like the Beach Boys jamming with the Velvet Underground and Françoise Hardy, covering ‘Monster Mash’ – and though that sentence has to be up there with “Santa, the Armadillo and I” in terms of implausibility, it’s a style that is astonishingly catchy, natural, and flat-out fun. It’s time to surf the coldwave.

Throughout the album, most tracks have the same broad blueprint. A thudding, ominous intro laden with thwacking bass that blooms into sharp, punchy surf guitars. A spooky ambiance lent by droning organs or synths, and yéyé, aggressively rhymed vocals from one of the group’s many femmes. There’s a constant aura of kooky upbeatness – most of Psycho Tropical Berlin could be featured in a zany advert for French cars, wasted in that context but still prompting you to reach for Shazam. A standout is former single ‘Sur La Planche’, a pleasingly repetitive romp through the pleasures of surfing, updated here to be faster, tighter and more synth-dominated. Frantic, glorious and lighthearted, it’s all you can ask surf-pop to be.  Elsewhere, opener ‘Antitaxi’ pushes the 60s Californian influence further, flexing razorsharp guitars and a Theremin whilst slightly menacingly extoling the benefits of taking the bus (“Antitaxi! Prends le bus!”).

Good as these tracks are, sixteen of them would perhaps be too much. This is where La Femme’s odd genre combination comes into its own, as their surf side can be played down, and their other interests pushed to the fore. The excellent ‘Le Blues de Francoise’ is a case in point, demonstrating a more sombre style with not a jangle in sight. Over a haunting organ and subdued strums, a perfect monotone spoken delivery details Françoise’s blues as she sits alone with her tissues and cigarette ends, “pas un email, pas un coup de fil”. The chorus chimes in, and another Femme jollies things along, insisting “Tu n’es pas belle quand tu pleures” . Another gentle success comes in ‘It’s Time To Wake Up’, a slow ballad which captures wheezing synths and soothing organs, calling to mind their compatriots M83. Initially a simple lovesong, it quickly unravels into brilliant post-apocalyptica, as we learn they are together forever, the survivors – “Tout le monde se fait tuer / La silly cause / La guerre était finie – Mata Hari!”.

Though La Femme’s music is often irreverent and their female singers anonymously ever-changing, the women of Psycho Tropical Berlin are packing ideas behind their sultry vocals. Whether or not you can be bothered to translate the lyrics, their manic, rollercoaster pop and fierce hooks should be enough of a draw for the most Anglophone listener. 

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Album Review: Lescop – ‘Lescop’

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Whether it’s due to our weak linguistic skills or perhaps the sheer quantity (and undeniable quality) of our mother tongue’s musical output, the British don’t usually experiment much with non-English language bands. The rest of Europe cheerfully listens to anything with a good tune; be it in their native language, beautifully misheard English, or whatever else, they’ll give it a spin and an objective listen. Successful non-English acts have been relatively few and far between in the UK though, with Sigur Rós, that ‘Numa Numa’ song and Rammstein the exceptions rather than the rule. Maybe it’s a result of all those Eurovision embarrassments. Whatever the reason, it’s a tradition worth breaking for Lescop, a French singer/producer whose work echoes the cool restraint of the xx and the glossy, dark electro-pop of the Drive soundtrack.

Certainly, listening to his debut without understanding the lyrics will take something away from the experience. With fewer plosives than English as well as more unconscious connotations than a train speeding into a tunnel, French has an undeniably romantic association for English speakers – but Lescop isn’t just singing sweet nothings about pamplemousses or going to la piscine. Over his cold-wave disco, he tackles everything from love to punk to Jesse Owens. And thanks to that Thierry Henry advert, it all sounds fantastically sensuous and deep. On ‘Tokyo, La Nuit’, he deadpans “Tokyo, la nuit. Le doubte, la crainte, l’ennui. Tokyo tu vis, dans la mort, le sang, le bruit“ – meaning “Tokyo at night. Doubt, fear, ennui. Tokyo you live, in death, blood, noise” (no need for Google Translate; knew that French degree would come in handy eventually). Whilst it obviously sounds better with a Gallic lilt and a rhyme scheme, that’s a representative sample of both Lescop’s lyrical content and the entire album’s atmosphere – following the lead of the Cure and Joy Division, Lescop consistently achieves a beautiful melancholy, both musically and lyrically, but never forgets to keep his listeners dancing.

Undoubtedly this is serious music – you can dance, but Lescop also wants you to think. As with Daft Punk’s endless spiel about humans being robots and vice versa, he isn’t above pseudo-philosophy, stating “we want our pop to be bipolar; we fight against musical boredom, it’s a controlled chaos, a love story”. And while there’s little sign of the chaos, it’s certainly controlled. Almost invariably, the songs are propelled by metronomic bass pulses, before the chilling synths and Lescop’s assured vocals kick in. It’s cinematic and urgent, but without the lack of depth that could so easily be present. From the soaring, motorway-at-night tension of ‘La Nuit Américaine’ to the 80s noir of ‘Ljubljana’ and the creeping paranoia turned darkest disco of ‘Le Mal Mon Ange’, it’s an impressive debut all round. Though it never truly approaches the dark, opulent glory of Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’, Lescop has a thinner, more analogue sound – there’s more than a hint of Placebo-style dark alt.pop here. Had he actually soundtracked Drive, Gosling would have stopped and thought about all those people he was killing, and probably talked about his feelings a whole lot more.

Though the “I don’t like films with subtitles” crowd will doubtless make their excuses, Lescop remains an extremely easy album to get into, with the only downside being that the constant French can lull you into not giving each song your full attention. Turn out the lights, drag angstily on your Gauloise and dance your most serious dance – vive la vague de froide.