In 1976 a level 4 epidemic, imported from a NYC club, swarmed all-over the island nation of Britain. In a few short years the music that had been, was wiped out, by Punk. Most of the overblown super-groups that had dominated were sidelined or drawn into Punk imitation (The Rolling Stones' "Shattered" for example). Conventional songwriters and balladeers were consigned to memory or the US market where change, probably due to commercial FM radio dominance, came along much more slowly. So slowly that many young Americans understandably think that punk started with Green Day in 1990 until someone directs them to the proto-punk Stooges or the Sex Pistols.
Any actual creative musical talent that went through the 70's punk mixer emerged into a "new wave" as cleverer, musically dynamic groups that sounded nothing like the first half of the 70's: Acts like XTC, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello now defined 'rock' music. Even cute new poppy bands tended, like The Cure, towards literary references and French philosophy in particular. That always seemed like a good thing to me, the previous era - a combination of prog-rock, disco-soul, glam-rock, folk-pop and ballads - soon seemed archaic. And yet, there are gems, outstanding performers, in each era and in every form of music. If Punk's clean sweep tossed the proverbial baby out with the bath-water, was that it? The end? Was the good stuff gone forever? Would it ever come back as something recognizable again?
It's 2009, and it's now apparent that lovers of early seventies music need not despair of "ever hearing anything as good again"... If prejudices can be put aside, a venture away from 'classic' FM stations will reveal revivalist efforts a plenty: Although I am no fan of 'neo-soul', soul infected pop is back, as are big keyboards, strings and even theme albums like The Decemberists' latest.
Now (surprisingly or coincidentally?) it's two Frenchmen - Eric John Kaiser and Tété - who have bumped the jukebox of early 70's songsters into the 21st century. Here are two performers who could have comfortably shared stage with artists such as Al Stewart. Their current US tour winds up at Berbati's in Portland, Oregon on 26th June, and promises to be lively and original. Both Kaiser and Tété sing bilingually, and incorporate their experiences and cross-over influences to make distinctive music.
Eric John Kaiser's 2009 CD release 'French Troubadour' contains a full spectrum of great old style pop/rock songs, expertly written and delivered with engaging storytelling. Were this a release by one of the big old acts that linger, or limp, on 35 years after their time it would be acclaimed as "their best since...". Here are all the trappings of high-quality musicianship with perfectly timed lifts of emotion and consistently strong songs. It's updated, refreshing - and importantly - achieved through restraint: Guitar solos are fleeting; keyboard, trumpet and cello embellishments enter only for emphasis.
[The French Troubadour CD packaging, designed by Tiny Little Hammers, contains a delightful twist as each song's lyrics are printed on the reverse of mini postcards of Portland street photos by Jason Quigley.]
Kaiser left France for Portland a few years back chasing an 'American dream' that actually seems to be paying off. His lyrical narrative mines his personal experiences and observations of both cultures; personal songs mix with societal observation: One song describes a newspaper seller from 'the hood' who never quite makes the [baseball] series; on the title-track he laments over lazy conversations with condescending drunks after performances; within the quite excellent track, 'L'Héritier, is an ambitious sweep over near history - written in French, it tackles the recent decades of French/US heritage: Translating the final verse (with the help of a friend), I find lyrics advocating "de-colonization of our ideas, and prisons (of thought); to pass beyond familiar lands, to unknown worlds where each brushstroke (Coup de Pincaeu - only in French!) is a new history, our lives as works of art."
The lyrics switch comfortably between French and English, and handle classic themes of relationships and alienation without getting sloppy or overly sentimental. For instance, on 'Pardon' he opens with "Talk to me, come on and talk to me. Cause after all we are lovers, after all we are friends." - he suggests they walk together and remember when things were better: "Really worth a try. really worthwhile." And that sums up this album for me, from a genre that simply isn't my cup du Café, this is, really worthwhile.
Backing Kaiser on a few songs and doing his own full set is Tété. Huge in the French-speaking world and a frequent headliner in Europe, Tété was Senegalise born but brought-up in France from the age of two. Critics liken Tété to Ben Harper due to his infectious live presence and strong political/social outlook, but listening to his album 'Le Sacre Des Lemmings', I was struck by how much he too alluded to early 1970's stars like Johnny Nash and even Stevie Wonder. This cross-over seems to stem from his taste for Anglo-Saxon pop and folk traditions, mixed with his acclaimed guitar and energy it promises to be a blistering night on the 26th.
Copyright: Zaph Mann 2009. Reproduction with attribution is fine. Original publisher: opbmusic.org 2009