Chanteuse and lyricist Dominique Fonfrède, accordionist Michèle Buirette and contrabassist Geneviève Cabannes first recorded together in 1986, before adopting the self-deprecatingly ironic name “Pied de poule”. For about ten years, these three French women knit together cryptocrystalline pearls of sublime avant-garde chanson. Although their background was in jazz, classical and improvisational music, the sum of the parts turned out to be much more than simple amalgam of their extraordinary talent.
Melancholy reigns in the texts and resounds in the individualistic, reflective tone of this highly sensual, feminine creation. Whenever their lyrical path invited comedy or irony, the melodic line, or theatrical rendition countered the half-smile with a palinode of pensive mood and reflection. While they certainly did not invent the genre, their unique mélange of witty lines and quirky melodies was always delivered with panache, tasseled with dolorous observations of mature womanhood.
On later recordings, Pied de Poule were often supported by two members of Un Drame Musical Instantané – saxophonist and flutist Youenn Le Berre and percussionist extraordinaire Gérard Siracusa.
Female voice smooth as enamel opens in a constative mode, prodded by accordion’s precise, short phrases and some rapid quarter notes. Although this opening was penned by the bassist Geneviève Cabannes, she does not appear until later. This resolutely jumpy chanson plumps the first cubes of melancholy into our musical café break. Dominique Fonfrède invites us to her world with pithy verse libre. Her irregular meter and rhyme would allow the semantic content to glide across the lines, increasing the potential for surprise and multiplying the unexpected pointes. After a short interruption, acoustic bass joins the fray and multi-voice polyphony resumes this short story of the solitude of a café-going woman, always recognized by the waiter. When the coda comes, it is delivered with an exquisite accordion line, bowed acoustic bass and a canzona-like singing pitched above the preceding theme. Only isolated phonemes reach us, though, melismatically wrapping random scraps of the now familiar text.
The rat, scurrying about rice and radish baits appears too sly to miss the step imposed by Gérard Siracusa’s extraordinarily nimble drumsticks. Michèle Buirette’s fast bellow shakes and some rodent calls turn this piece into a pleasing satire. The dramatic vocal slides could evoke contemporary opera type, but the light stick rattle on hand drums and tambourines distract us by impersonating the shining movement of the adorable, furry animal. Comic jibes at the rat that refuses to catch the bait bring little result (“Will it, or will it not?”). The little beast is too astute. Suspensful accordion and percussive crescendo eventually collapse into a disorderly crowd of rat-like talking heads.
Dominique Fonfrède’s initial declamation is slowly being transformed into proper melody by a swinging, almost bandoneon-sounding Buirette and an appropriately smoky, walking bass line. Yet the attempts to construe a proper “song” fail and a more directly conversational form resurfaces, with the Sprechstimme monologue occasionally interrupted by insistent commentaries from Buirette and Cabannes. This is a dubious tribute to “banlieue” – desolate French sleeptowns, described here with uncharacteristically non-metaphoric candor: “no commerce, no factories, no offices, no cows, no fields, no villages”.
Cha cha gourmand
A refreshingly epicurean Caribbean step with a ‘gavroche’-type wink-wink accordion accents and bowed bass. A histrionic guffaw at the end of the track invalidates the lightness of its dance-like structure.
The composition begins with parallel street observations by Dominique Fonfrède and Carlos Zingaro. When an interrogative chanson commences, Zingaro’s violin introduces a dramatic, focused theme. Buirette’s accordion appears first in a harmonic role but they part ways when the metric element dissipates and Fonfrède’s performance descends into recitative accompagnato. Her initially anodyne commentary turns existentialist, harnessing operatic levels energy. We then hear Youenn Le Berre on flute. His full, sultry tone softens considerably the lyrical content, but not necessarily the melodic sonorities. As an aside, one could expect such contrapuntal combination of accordion and flute to be highly promising in the hands of an accomplished arranger. Joseph Racaille, Frank Pahl, Jean Derome and David Garland each used it with considerable success, but many others tried and failed. More recently Belgian band Aranis has successfully incorporated such timbral and structural juxtaposition into its orchestrations.
Les sept mains
This is a multi-tracked solo on double bass. Dr Jekyll Cabannes appears somewhat hesitant, meting out wooly, investigative pizzicatos on E-string. Mrs Hyde Cabannes is a romantic, handling adroitly detaché bowing with short, yet reflexively autumnal phrases.
Liseron I, matin de juin
A remarkably condensed deconstruction of a very private early morning hustle recounted here in passé simple. The narrative collapses into three competing voices. Le Berre’s flute and Buirette’s accordion couple with deep successive strokes on acoustic bass and allow Fonfrède to recite the text with a speed of a machine-gun. Her diction is impeccable, smooth, free-floating. A reedy, polyphonic solo on accordion engrosses, holding us warmly between the grooves of its bellows, and cradling our heads into abandon. All this charm was deployed here to tell us some home truths about… a cold shower and a morning coffee…
This cantata opens comfortably with a dependable basso continuo and fast, though texturally thick accordion lines. Fonfrède’s art is to singing what Conlon Nancarrow was to keyboards. As a result, it is impractical to even attempt to follow the semantic content of the rapid-fire syllables without reading the attached sheet. It then turns out that her proceeding relies on stammer-like repetition. The words (hardly about the “wasps” from the title) must have been selected for their phonetic quality and above all for the apparent overabundance of bilabial nasals, ultimately the first consonants we all humans emit with some time after birth. When the ‘song’ attains its dramatic climax, the tension is soon released through a steady, peaceful decrescendo. Somewhat superfluously, the trio interjects descriptive elements (vacillating stomps from behind a corner, a decisive accordion-bass dash across the courtyard). Hyperbolic, coarse moans of devoiced agony side with an arco in audible despair. In full denial, springtime sentimentality closes the track with inanely banal ‘la-la-la’.
La duchesse de Guermantes
Dominique Fonfrède adapted Marcel Proust’s text and interprets it here in a caricatural, stilted, indignant manner. A Shelley Hirsch-like homophonic doubling ushers in a slow, matter-of-factly presentation of the same lyrical content. Hysterical, nervous laughter interrupts the uncertain flow.
Liseron II, matin de septembre
The track begins as a trio for accordion, flute and recitative. The flute flutters blithely around accordion’s reliable harmonic stasis. In one of the most classical moments, the flute and soprano vocal take off for a feathery flight. The theme is never developed. Instead, the accordion shifts into an uptempo mode and Dominique Fonfrède’s vocal salvos become grandiose, further enhanced by Carlos Zingaro’s violin. The instrumental trio of accordion, flute and violin configures a couple of short notes, while Fonfrède descends from her soprano into ungainly shout and pedantic warble.
This delicate, elegant tango has its caminada tempo well-defined by a plucked bass. Buirette and Fonfrède exchange roles, achieving the classic Pied de Poule style. This is twilight nostalgia at its most poignant, yet with none of Borgesian coraje. The track’s witty twists and unusual phrasing are as feminine as the beauty of any Porteña’s feline steps.
Hot and wet. The midsummer theme expresses ego-doubts of a cat, with a bowed bass, assertive voice and an accordion. It is the accordion that feels its way diminuendo around the twisted yellow-lit streets of the 5ème arrondissement or maybe la Recoleta, the emblematic neighborhoods of two cities marked forever by the experienced, urban face of this instrument and its close cousins.
In a welcome departure from the avant-chanson style, the trio plunges into an improvisation awash with riffy bass bowing, robotic panting, susurrando and Angst-whispering. The frenetic pace and incandescent interpenetration of contrasting elements recalls Steve Hillage’s equally impromptu intermezzo “Fish”.
This most complex composition on the record begins with a Balkan-sounding polyphonic vocal trio. Slowly the constraints of the French language (the stress on the last syllable) betray the singers’ origins. When Le Berre intervenes on his unusually highly pitched cornemuse (French bagpipe), the character of the piece suddenly changes. The French variant of this instrument usually has a small drone and Le Berre always astounded me in his long-winded, spine-chilling contributions to the recordings documented by Un Drame Musical Instantané. The two bellows-dependent instruments – accordion and bagpipe take us here on a trail with youthful, vivacious, upbeat intentions. Then the duo steadies for a moment of reflection, extracting unusual harmonies from the air reservoirs (how often do we hear bagpipes and accordion seeking unison?). Carlos Zingaro’s violin rejoins shortly in one of the more lyrical moments on the record.
Coda ad hoc
The closing statement for voice and accordion.
PIED DE POULE: “Indiscrétion” (1988)
PIED DE POULE: “Café noir” (1991)
PIED DE POULE: “Jamais tranquille! Rude journée pour les mouflets” (1993)
PIED DE POULE: “Confection et articles divers” (1997)
The trio can also be found on compilations “Douze pour un vol.2” (1986) and “Bunt” (1991). All of these records are of the highest quality. The avant-gardish tension of the early recordings mellowed slightly with time, but in a highly praiseworthy manner.
One could trace the origin of ideas first developed by the trio to Michèle Buirette’s debut LP, on which all the three artists appeared (although never together on any of the tracks). It was with great joy that we could rediscover Buirette’s world of intelligent and fresh songs four years ago.
Michèle BUIRETTE: “La mise en plis” (1985)
Michèle BUIRETTE: “Le panapé de Caméla” (2004)
One song can also be found on compilation “Bad Alchemy Nr 4” (1986).