Hyped as the herald of a post-punk “neo-realist” movement to revive the pre-WW II chanson, Luaka Bop’s latest compilation instead offers a fascinating glimpse at an unplugged alternative scene that barely nods to the soap-operatic “realist” tradition of Damia and Fréhel, not to mention Piaf. And while some of these ex-rockers have obviously grokked Brel and Gainsbourg, their boldest stroke is just to dare to sound French.
Cuisine Non-Stop is strongly flavored with world music—North African, West African, Brazilian, Jamaican, Gypsy—and, inevitably, with hip-hop. There are koras and darboukas but also cellos, double basses, clarinets, tubas, and violins. Guitars and pianos outnumber accordions, and the Gallic feel is mainly in the vocals. Perversely, there are no waltzes, unless you count Les Pires’ lugubrious instrumental “Dancing With Jean-Maurice.”
With its sprightly squeeze box and wistful melody, Têtes Raides’ skippy love song “Un P’tit Air” is about as chanson-esque as this disc gets. Arthur H has a nice Gainsbourg-ish growl, but his Maghrebian-tinged “Naïve Derviche” is more mystic than realistic. Ignatius’s “La Politique” is an apolitical exercise in finding words that rhyme with the title (panique, astronomique, pathétique, Dionne Warwick). The only truly engagé track is Dupain’s “Fèm Ren,” a bitter proletarian lament (“They’re making us close the factory”) wailed over a droning hurdy-gurdy in Occitan, the nearly extinct language of southern France.
Chanson parodists La Tordue skank drolly over a drumless one-drop beat on the politically incorrect tit tribute “Les Lolos” (“It’s crazy what you can imagine from all the spherical shapes”). But the cheekiest track is Java’s “Au Banquet au Chausseurs” (“At the Hunter’s Banquet”) a sort of acoustic hip-hop dub bossa with accordion, over which rapper Erwann infectiously intones, “English beef, poulet Belge, salmonelle,” and a chorus answers, “Legalize!”
Still, the hands-down standout is Lo’Jo, an itinerant hippie troupe whose 1998 breakthrough album, Mojo Radio, and the follow-up, Bohême de Cristal, have both been released in the U.S. (the group’s latest, L’Une des Siens, is presumably on the way). Somewhere between Denis Péan’s gravelly call and the Nid El Mourid sisters’ soaring response, the band finds that elusive groove where kora and accordion seem made for each other. And in “Brûlé la Mèche,” they confound politics with poetry: “And let the devil take me/or having learned the name of God/the name of Muhammad in the sights of a rifle.”