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Today November 20, 2001, we witness two box sets rereleasing early records by two brilliant bands:
Les Cowboys FringantsLes Cowboys Fringants are a tight little 5-piece "country" band from Repentigny, Québec. They are suspended in some twilight region between gag band and serious band. This in the sense that they can sound spine-chillingly serious in their gags (see my comments on their song "Mon pays"), and their more serious moments are still delivered lightly. After the success of last year's Motel Capri, the rerelease of their first two self-produced albums gives us all an opportunity to discover the early music of this unique band and its world-class songwriting.
The band plays simple but very tasteful arrangements. The musical centers of the group are the talented fiddler/accordionist/mandolinist, Marie-Anick Lépine, who subtly puts on the melody to the straighforward acoustic guitar/bass/drum arrangements, and Karl Tremblay's passionate singing.
Sur mon canapé has older versions of a few songs that were rerecorded in Motel Capir. The album kicks off with the already classic Marcel Galarneau, a fast sing-along number about Marcel, an used-car salesman from St. Hilaire, and his attempts at making a fortune. He, in an apparent incident of senility, sells his own car. He gets into trouble with an apparent mafia don because of some murky business with his daughter:
Le vieux fou a pas aimé ça
Marcel decides to strike it rich: he starts importing contraband dental floss from the US, hiding it in "Export A" cigarette cartons. Sadly for him, customs doesn't bother to look inside them when he insists they're full of dental floss and not cigarettes. He gets thrown in jail, and the final chorus admonishes him:
Oh Marcel! Oh Marcel Galarneau!
Track 2, "Le Plombier" (The Plumber), one of the highlights of this album, is about a little incident, but one whose kind, played out through thousands and thousands of encounters, constitutes one of the major phenomena of modern capitalist industrial societies: class war.
The song is sung from the point of view of a young, apparently unengaged, male yuppie. From the very first verses, he inspires dislike:
Juste comme j'partais pour le squash
Fucking yuppie bastard, we don't care how much money you have, your Mexico shirts, or your brandname dropping. Happily, something bad happens to him:
Les égouts on r'foulé
WOOHOO!!! SHIT AND PISS ALL OVER YOUR APPARTMENT, YOU YUPPIE BASTARD!!! (For the French impaired: the quoted lines describe the sewer blocking, the toilet overflowings, and fecal coliforms on the balcony. Strike one for the proletariat.)
So he grabs the phonebook and calls the first number under the plumbing section of the yellow pages: Amazons Plumbing. Then he gets, well, what do you expect: a plumber. One called Guy Lafleur, just like a famous hockey player (the theme of ordinary people named just like famous people runs through the Cowboy's music). Our narrator, of course, doesn't like him, he's not good enough for him. So the rest of the song is about the yuppie kid whining about how disgusting and rustic the plumber is, how slow he supposedly is at fixing the plumbing, and how he should be playing squash with his officemates instead of having to deal with this plumber guy.
And therein lies the challenge and the genius of the song: what are we to make of the complaints of such a disgusting character, this yuppie? The Cowboys manage to make a song whose content is almost wholly about one character saying bad things about the other into a song condemning the guy nothing is said about. For all the yuppie might say about the plumber could even be true, and this fact wouldn't change: the plumber is friendly. LONG LIVE THE PROLETARIAT!
Track 6, "Denise Martinez", continues the aforementioned theme of people with names like those of famous people. The Montreal Expos may have Denis Martínez, the baseball star, but they also have Denise Martinez, the daughter of a Guatemalan immigrant who wears an orange-fur costume and works as their mascot. This song is the story of her life.
Track 7, "Mon Pays (Reel des Aristocrates)", is where the gags suddenly become spine-chilling. The song is a parody of the history of Québec separatism. The recurring theme: the Québécois were conquered by the English, and have never managed to free themselves, because they drink too much. The song starts by recalling the events of the 7 Year War, when France lost Québec to the English, and giving them a peculiar twist: the French lost because they drunk like bastards while the English prepared their attack:
Si Montcalm avait pas été saoul
Who could fail to be taken aback by these powerful lines?
The song goes on, relating different groups, moments, incidents of Québécois separatism, and weaving alcohol into their failure, to finally cynically call out a "tu mettras les bières dans l'cooler!" that despite the content, sounds like a spine-chilling battle cry:
Depius c'temps là on s'est écrasé
Track 12, "Banlieu" (also rerecorded for Motel Capri), is a touching song about growing up in the suburbs and first love. The first half of the song tells of children's games, getting in trouble for loudly hitting a garage door with a hockey ball, reaching teen age and widening the social network, first death of a neighborhood friend in a car accident, droppping out of Cegep, and such. The second half of the song, the first love part, seems unrelated to the first; the protagonist falls in love, but after some time, she finds someone else and tells him off, which hurts him badly, and drives him to drink for two weeks. The beatiful ending:
L'automne y'est r'venu par la porte d'en arrière
This song may sound ordinary on paper, but it must be heard to be appreciated. The melody is simple and beatiful, and performed just right. It manages to make suburbia, that dreadful USian invention, product of the failure of urban planning, sound beautiful.
Café TacubaCafé Tacuba is Mexico's best rock band. The rerelease box set comprises their first three albums: 1992's eponymous Café Tacuba, their 1996 "covers" album Avalancha de Éxitos (a brilliant gag where none of the covers sounds in any way like the originals; hell, they play a huasteco version of the world's most famous merengue song, Ojalá que llueva café), and most importantly, 1994's magnum opus, Re, where they breeze through some of the 20 most varied and brilliant songs ever put together in one album.
The Café Tacuba sound is truly unique; sweet nylon-string guitar, meaty acoustic bass playing and organic-sounding keyboards over visceral drum machine beats. And the high, lonesome voice of the lead singer. And those vocal harmonies.
The first track of Re is "El Aparato", a song about space aliens kidnapping peasants. If it weren't for the head-ripping electronic beats at the end, you could mistake this for a countryside Mexican song.
They have the finesse of following up a hardcore song, "El Borrego", with a violin-tinted mixture of bolero and tango in "Esa Noche", and then the (literally) manic pop of "24 horas"; in a subtle put down to happy shiny pop, the singer declares that he wants to live 24 hours a day, and, compulsively insomniac, runs around:
Cuando llego a tu lado me siento y a descansar
Track 10, "El fin de la infancia", is the band's artistic manifesto:
Hay gente que dice que el baile es sólo una diversión
The song, literally about dancing, succeeds in politicizing dance. Dancing on our own, and that is dansing to our own music and not surrendering to the corporate hit parade nor to New York fashion whims, is equated to thinking on our own. It also bears mentioning the sound in this song: a punkish backbeat, accompanied by a Mexican metals banda, complete with a tuba.
Track 12, "Pez", is a brilliant little song about a fish taken out of a fish tank, put inside a plastic bag with water (apparently this happens in a pet shop), and then taken out of the bag into the open air-- the song ends with the mystery of what's going to happen next; is there a fish tank in waiting for the poor little fish?
The trick to the song, however is the lyrics; it is sung from the perspective of the fish, who of course doesn't understand what's happening:
Siento que me han escogidoHe's being taken by some unknown superior being that he can't comprehend. He's heard over his life vague stories about what happens when he's taken out of his world, the fishtank:
Ésto alguien ya me lo contóHe gets put into the water-filled plastic bag:
Otra vez en mi elemento
There the fish gets a revelation:
Y ahora creo saber que algún serThen he gets taken out of the bag, falls into a grey surface, and the water drains away. The song ends with our hero asking himself what's the meaning of all this:
¿Qué nadie se ha dado cuenta?
We never find out.
These albums are essential additions to any musical collection. There is no way anybody anywhere could fail to appreciate these masterpieces. After all, music is the universal language. Go buy them, now. (Of course, to buy them please use our convenient Amazon links...)