Listening to Chrominance Decoder on the car stereo, I'm cruising along the Cote d'Azur in a Deux Chevaux, singing dah-bah-dah-bah-dah, laughing gaily at nothing in particular as I dash off on some madcap international adventure. So what if I'm actually driving a '93 Camry down Highway 40, my destination a cramped cubicle in Maryland Heights? When this record's playing, I'm Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim. I'm the girl from Ipanema.
Chrominance Decoder is the newest album by April March, a.k.a. Elinor Blake. Whereas Blake is a thirtysomething American woman who lives in California and works for the film and television industries, March is a French ingenue circa 1962. She looks like Audrey Hepburn and sings, in French and English, with a lilting, girlish voice a bit like Jane Birkin's, a bit like Astrud Gilberto's. With her collaborator, Bertrand Burgolat, who wrote, played, produced and arranged most of the album's 19 songs, March makes Ye-Ye music, the French answer to the British Invasion. In the '60s, this genre begat huge stars like Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, Johnny Halliday, Françoise Hardy and Chantal Kelly -- all of whom, with the possible exception of Gainsbourg, are unknown or underrated outside France.
I can hear the whining begin: "Why doesn't she write her own songs based on her own life experiences and sing them in her native language instead of aping a bunch of foreigners, particularly the French, who, as everyone decided a long time ago, are incontrovertibly uncool?" If you have to ask, you just don't get it. First of all, the French are, always have been, always will be cool. Second, pop music is less about personal honesty than about creative transformation. (Consider the case of skinny little freak Robert Zimmerman. Did he stick around Duluth, writing songs about shoveling the snow off his parents' driveway? Nope, he reinvented himself as Bob Dylan, hobo visionary, beat troubadour.) Last and most important, Chrominance Decoder resists criticism for the same reason it resists defense: It's silly music--not silly/pointless, but silly/glamorous, as in a pair of marabou-trimmed mules with glittery kitten heels.
My favorite song, "Garçon Glaçon," is a sexy paean to an icy paramour. "I love an ice-cube boy," March coos sweetly in French. "When the sun is high, when I'm too hot, he knows how to refresh me." Oh-la-la! "Mignonette" and "Mon Petit Ami" feature delightfully sassy background vocals from consummate indie girl group Thee Headcoatees. The Dust Brothers contribute two remixes, which should earn March a few points in some circles. But the best thing about this record is how unabashedly dated it sounds: If you can't stand Henry Mancini or Esquivel (or even the High Llamas); if you don't appreciate luxuriant arrangements brimming with analog synths, flutes, trumpets, trombones, musical saws, xylophones and swooshy strings; if you're not one for lunatic extravagance in general, go listen to your dull and dreary music. April March is for those who love the fun and fabulous.
-- René Spencer Saller
Ring of Saturn (ffrr/Island)
If you believe the hype, Goldie is the king of drum & bass, the first techno maestro to emerge from obscure depths of London's jungle underground to become a breakbeat superstar. That was until the supermodel-dating celebrity nearly lost himself while tiptoeing in the treacherous twilight zone where head-spinning and hard-hitting drum & bass duels (and loses to) banal jazz-funk.
After the arch and prog-ish Saturn Returnz, a high-profile, two-CD epic that never seemed to end, Ring of Saturn, as the title suggests, finds the gold-toothed bad boy orbiting his previous work and gravitating ever so slightly to his more frenetic and whacked-out origins. Thank God -- let's hope the jazz-funk fusion Martians never abduct him again.
Still, for all of Goldie's introspection, Ring of Saturn finds the one-time innovator sounding uncharacteristically dated. With other, more intelligent and deeper trance-inducing drum & bass out there -- LTJ Bukem, DJ Crystl, Roni Size and Omni Trio, to name a few -- it's hard to see why you'd go back to Goldie.
Though Ring of Saturn is a scaled-back, almost minimalist 40-minute interpretation of its much longer predecessor, many of the tracks are still tinged with the overwrought pretentiousness that castrated Saturn Returnz. "Mother VIP (Vocal Mix)" mangles the near-druglike effects good drum & bass can elicit simply because of the prominent vocals, which should be, at the very most, background mantras. The same problem plagues "What You Won't Do for Love (Radio Edit)." Of the 10 tracks, the only ones likely to send you into your own orbit are "Temper, Temper (Optical Remix)" and "Kaiser Salsek," which boast visceral beat-juggling and wide-open dubscapes that hark back to Goldie's earlier work, like his 1993 groundbreaking piece "Terminator," which brought drum & bass out from its reclusive sanctum.
So though Ring of Saturn finds Goldie returning to the same rich vein that made him a star, in his absence others were able to mine their own riches, leaving drum & bass king Goldie with nothing left but fool's gold.
-- Matthew Hilburn
Invocations: Sacred Music from World Traditions (Music of the World)
Since gospel kicked the blues out of church, Americans have come to see sacred music as square and staid. Hassan Hakmoun's opening number on this record is a sure antidote to that attitude: He comes thumping his sintir, a North African lute with a bass tone, as if he's trying to beat the devil out of it; actually he's using it to praise the saints descended from the prophet Mohammed, with the help of an unnamed percussionist whose instrument sounds like a horse busting ass down the roads of Morocco.
That's the way it goes with Invocations. It includes two solemn Native American songs, an mbira duet and a Zen Buddhist meditation on the circle of life in the form of a falling leaf (composed on the shakuhachi, the stately Japanese bamboo flute, which inspires my prayer: God, please transform every hippy college kid's didgeridoo into a shakuhachi overnight). The rest of the record is so ferocious it could skyrocket God's popularity in this caffeine culture of ours. Even when we talk about spiritual "energy," it has a touchy-feely connotation that bespeaks lidded eyes, but the worshipers on this record deal with the kind of energy that whips necks (the Sufi dervish dance "Hud Hud" by Iranian master Jalal Zolfonun) and raises the dead (a Nigerian village percussion ensemble busting out beats at a funeral, which is to say a reincarnation ceremony).
The power source has many different names here; everybody from the Yoruba god of the crossroads (from New York City by way of Cuba) to the Virgin La Mamacha del Carmen (from a town in Andean Peru) to Lord Rama (in his mood of mediator) is invoked. Are they all the same thing? Who knows? This much for sure: It -- they -- sure can call a tune. Who cares whether it's the opiate of the masses, when it gets us this high?
-- Chris King