(Dominique Cravic – guitar, favino guitar, viola caipira; Daniel Colin – accordion; Daniel Huck – soprano and alto sax, clarinet; Fay Lovsky – musical saw, prepared piano, ukulele, finger snapping, Jew’s harp, theremin, claps; Jean-Michel Davis – xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, percussion, drums, glockenspiel; Claire Elzière – voice; Jean-Philippe Viret – double bass; Hervé Legeay – guitar; Betrand Auger – entire clarinet family, alto, tenor, and baritone sax, flutes; Robert Crumb – mandolin; plus 32 other musicians and singers)
The term “musette” has its origins in an eighteenth-century French bagpipe-like instrument and the rustic dance-hall music and settings in which it became popular. Eventually the bagpipe was replaced by the accordion, and the musette hall became a fashionable gathering place for French Auvergne peoples and Italians. It reached its peak of popularity in the late 1940s, after which it began to fade. Now, a few artists are reviving the form and combining it with other influences.
Among the foremost of the revivalists is Les Primatifs du Futur, perhaps the brainchild of that ex-pat genius, R. Crumb. Or perhaps not. Certainly Crumb has had a part in reviving and reconfiguring this venerable French musical style: his unique, quaintly antiquated prints are all over it. [He also created the cover art which is unmistakable Crumb…Ed.] But with this, the fifth offering of Les Primitifs du Futur, one suspects that whatever role he may have had in launching this project has been taken over by others.
If there’s a criticism of this music, it’s that it’s too precious and an exercise in unreconstructed nostalgia. One of the strategies Les Primitifs use to overcome the nostalgia critique is to broaden out the palette of the form. This includes several approaches: expanding the soundscape to include odd instruments like the theremin, musical saw, glockenspiel, Jew’s harp, and ukulele; blending in world-music influences from Basque to Arabic to Hispanic; and adopting a distinctly postmodern attitude that thumbs its nose at tradition even as it seeks to breathe new life into forgotten musical forms.
The results vary; some attempts are wildly successful, others come across as half-baked. Among the former are, generally, the instrumental numbers, “La Valse Hindoue,” with its wildly eclectic combination of instruments including xylophone, musical saw, tablas, prepared piano and, it sounds to me, uncredited accordion and acoustic bass; “Dalinette,” a Gypsy-cabaret tune haunted by the musical saw of Fay Lovsky; “Je Cherche Après Titine,” sounding like an Arabic/French drinking song, if such a thing can be imagined; the polka-march “Syldave ou Bordure?”; “Ivresses,” a gentle waltz, and its companion, “Nous Sommes Seul(e)s,” with its weird koto/theremin vibe; the jazziest number, “Mingus Viseur,” another waltz; the happy-sad rave-up “Syldave et Bordure!” featuring the weird glockenspiel/theremin combination; and the Tex-Mex French nightclub number showcasing the diatonic accordion of Flaco Jimenez and the mesmeric musical saw of Fay Lovsky, “Les Anges de San Antonio.”
The vocal numbers work less well for me—too often they come across as overly-mannered and somewhat unconvincing. The exceptions are “Ton Manteau Gris,” featuring the charmingly plaintive vocal of Claire Elzière, and the bluesy-scat of “Ménage á Trois.”
I do have questions about how well this music will hold up in the long run, but for the nonce it provides numerous if perhaps insubstantial pleasures.
TrackList: “La Valse Hindoue, Sur le Toit/Ramona, Dalinette, Je Cherche Après Titine, Ton Manteau Gris, La Grande Truanderie, Canal Saint-Martin, Syldave ou Bordure?, Ivresses, Nous Sommes Seul(e)s, Mon Idéal, Ménage a Trois, Mingus Viseur, Syldave et Bordure!, La Denière rumba de Django, Les Anges de San Antonio
– Jan P. Dennis