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Hailing from Nancy, “the metallurgic capital of France” (straight from the press bio, I swear), Fugu makes music that isn’t inspired so much by the Beatles as it is by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the second side of Abbey Road. And the group’s predictably easy-on-the-ears first LP—which dates from 1999 but is just getting a U.S. release now—is less an album than an event: Fugu 1 is what happens when a French band joins the psychedelic army and invades the razor-thin groove separating “Mean Mr. Mustard” from “Polythene Pam.” That’s a common musical stratagem, of course, and if you’re wondering whether Fugu has anything particularly new to say with the form, there’s a tower in Paris I’d like to sell you. But when it comes to the legions of bands that practice the fine pop art of saying nothing new, Fugu is as eloquent as they come.
Except that it isn’t exactly a band. Centering on the compositions and fey vocal stylings (sorry, no other word will do) of Mehdi Zannad, Fugu is actually a collective of some 20-odd musicians, none of whom is odder than Zannad himself. Fugu is his baby—sometimes literally. With a Tom Waits-style accordion intro and a strings-and-harpsichord rhythmic march that’s just begging for Paul McCartney to sing “Woke up/Got out of bed” over it, the untitled 13th track on Fugu 1 opts instead for the sound of an infant wailing away in the middle of the night. Clocking in at just a minute-13, the song seems too long by, oh, a minute-13.
Fortunately, that’s as bracing as Fugu ever gets. Elsewhere, the collective comes on like a commune of pop modernists on choir-practice night, offering up all kinds of coolly detached “ooohs” and mellifluously intoned “aaahs”—as well as a slew of toe-tapping “ba-ba-bahs.” Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier graces the elegant “Sol y Sombra” with her reputedly Marxist love-cat cooing, but it’s Fugu’s discovery of a new use for the chord changes from Them’s “Gloria” that really makes the track hum. Splashing the well-worn progression with plenty of trumpets, strings, and “Groovy, baby” pop melodicizing, Fugu concocts an infectious sound, one that’s sure to induce fits of jealous rage in both Belle and Sebastian—not to mention the entire Elephant 6 faction.
The pretty “Variations Fitzwilliam” is equally nostalgic, though this time for the kind of baroque chamber music that went out of style about the time of the French Revolution. Lyrically, however, it’s a French-accented phrasefest on the poetic pleasures of contemporary ennui (I think): “When the clubs and the empty bars are closing/And your sleepy charm is failing/Then I bleed, then I bleed.” It is good, oui? Don’t be surprised, in fact, if listening to Fugu 1 makes you want to light up a whole pack of Gitanes and drink a bottle (or two) of Côtes du Rhône.
That’s especially true of the accurately titled “The Best of Us,” which is, shall we say, dense and complex, featuring an insistent Stereolabish body, an Association-style perfume, and Fugu’s ever-present Beatleslike finish. The legs, however, are positively Nicoesque. Chiming in amid slurring trombones and droning cellos, Zannad takes some time to practice his androgynized English idioms: “Takes the best of us/Just the rest of us.” Or something. Does it really matter? The singer-auteur is clearly going for the phoneme-over-meaning crowd, of which I’m apparently a member. To date, I’ve probably played “The Best of Us” 247 times and have gotten the same amount of euphoric pleasure on every occasion without fail. In a word, magnifique.
Could be that that’s just the wine talking, though, so let me defer to another one of France’s fun-loving pop-cultural exports, the literary theorist/philosopher/high priest of deconstruction Jacques Derrida. Derrida likes to claim that when it comes to “texts” (by which he seems to mean, um, everything), the original does not exist. There is no such thing as “iteration,” says the only philosopher ever to be name-checked in a Scritti Politti song; there is only “reiteration.” And it’s supposedly through reiteration that the so-called “original” is retroactively fabricated into existence. Get it? Me neither. Fortunately, Fugu itself is much easier to understand: The group reiterates beautifully, constructing a genuinely affecting sound from a genuinely nostalgic pastiche. Oui.
Black Box Recorder is from London, some city in the south of England. And, unlike Fugu, BBR is a band, one that makes music that’s designed like a sparse modernist living room: a nice place for cocktails, but you wouldn’t want to watch TV there. It’s too uncomfortable. Unless, of course, you really go for stainless-steel coffee tables and waiting-room-style couches.
Ouch. Can I go now?
I can stay for one more martini, I guess. Hey, these glasses are pretty cool…
BBR’s sourly named mix of B-sides, studio extras, and (if they don’t crash your computer) A-side videos captures the trio’s painfully chic dynamic from the get-go, opening with a straight-faced reading of Terry Jacks’ saccharine chart-topper “Seasons in the Sun.” “Goodbye to you my trusted friend,” recites Sarah Nixey, the preternaturally understated ice princess without whom BBR would be just another sharply dressed Britpop windup toy. Nixey doesn’t get a single songwriting credit on The Worst of Black Box Recorder, but her sing-speak vocalese is the band’s not-so-secret weapon, lending even such relative throwaways as the pristine singalong “Watch the Angel Not the Wire” and the frenetic “Lord Lucan Is Missing” the kind of cool reserve that could make the London tubeway mantra “Please mind the gap” sound like a catchphrase from a pop hit.
On “The Facts of Life”—an actual pop hit, remixed here by Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey of Pulp infamy—Nixey imbues what could be just a silly pomo art piece with an eerie sensuality that’s both erotic and clinical. But the disc’s cover tunes are its most revealing tracks, providing a good look at BBR’s perverse sense of humor and, in one instance, some real insight into the theory behind the group’s minimalist, deconstructive take on contemporary pop music. True, “Seasons in the Sun” is mostly a funny-once in-joke, but the triphop treatment that BBR gives Althea and Donna’s ’70s-era “Uptown Top Ranking” is strong enough to send Portishead back to the old school.
Best of all, however, is the trio’s take on David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Exposing the original’s carefully contrived passion by way of a precise, machinelike reading that’s just as affecting, BBR lives up to the prefabricated spirit of Bowie’s version, undermining the rockist mythology the original relied on even as it expands the considerable force of the Ziggy Stardust gem. It’s an example, in other words, of an effect that precedes (or at least exceeds) its cause. Or, as Derrida himself might put it, it’s got a great beat and you can dance to it—which is also true of most of the other tracks on this very good Worst of. Just don’t get too emotional about it, OK? You might spill something. CP