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I hate to begin with a backhanded compliment, but I like Boreal Torduís debut studio full-length album way more than I thought I would. Iíve always associated this band with having a shtick (Hey! Look at us! Weíre French! (or, Weíre North Amero-Franco-Quebeco-Acadian!)), and itís the very rare band with a shtick that I can get behind. Itís why I almost never write the whole this-is-how-the-band-formed music feature. In those deals, youíre bound to be stuck with "man, we totally give it our all on stage," "we let him do the booking because we can barely find our underwear in the morning," and "it really felt like God brought us all together" for quotes, and you wind up telling the Zany Band, Drugged-Out Band, or Divine Intervention Band archetypical narrative and spending about a paragraph telling people what the music actually sounds like.
Boreal would likely argue that their shtick is part and parcel with what their music sounds like, though. Filmmaker Ben Levine (whose Waking Up French we reviewed in "Awakening," by Beth Brogan, February 6, 2003) writes as much in his introduction to Torduís La Bonne Vie: "Boreal Tordu represents a new chapter in a cultural movement to make French live again in public ... This music shows us the French way." I read that and understand the words, but all I discern is: "Ha, ha, remember the ĎFronch bread, Fronch dressingí scene from Better off Dead? Ha, ha, if congressional Republicans read that, would they want to change it to, ĎThis music shows us the freedom wayí?"
Sorry, Iím not emotionally mature enough to pull off the Band That Wants to Save a Heritage archetypical narrative. I just donít really care. If the music sucked, would it be worth saving just because it was old and some small portion of our population wanted to preserve it for the dual sakes of posterity and nostalgia? No one likes being lectured to in a song. As a thought piece, itís interesting to wonder when, if ever, we can just say a cultural and historical time period is worthless and best forgotten (say, 1978 through now America, exemplified by Orgy covering New Orderís "Blue Monday"?).
But I donít have to write about French heritage to write about this album. Whatever the band have in mind, theyíve managed to create a fun brand of rootsy acoustic music thatís accessible despite/because of its French lyrics (on all but one tune) and features some top-notch musicality and singing.
Actually, the opening title track had me a bit scared. Written by fiddler vocalist Steve Muise and guitarist/dobrist/vocalist Rob Sylvain, itís awfully upbeat. Crapped-in-their-pants-but-they-donít-care happy. "Hallo mes amis," one of them calls out as the song opens, and then we get an ultra-jaunty "Quand jíetais jeune jíai vecu la bonne vie," which a consultation of the CD book lyrics sheet (very handy here, and much appreciated) confirms means "When I was young I lived the good life."
Iíll take just a pinch more cynicism, monsieur.
But the song is a rip-roariní good time, and Sylvainís delivery is coolly punctuated like a rap tune in places so the result is a growling bit of entertainment that I could easily see being a late-night way to get the bar dancing on the tables.
The two songs that follow, however, set the hook with a vengeance. "Pond Patois" features some fine fiddling from Muise, way to the fore, supported by bouncy footsteps and percussive acoustic guitar work. In the instrumentalís "verses," the fiddle arches for high notes that pop from the speakers, then travels to a chorus with just the right amount of melancholy to balance the exuberance. I canít help imagining a conversation between an enthusiastic 12-year-old and his world-weary dad, both of them strapping on a pair of ice skates at 7 am for a bit of puckhandling on a surface made smoky by the morning sun.
Thatís followed by the introduction of Sylvainís dobro, on which "Passe La Ville" is founded. It features the albumís first no-doubt sing-along line, "Jíai appris de líamour," which I was belting out at listen three. With a bouncy dobro hook in place of a telecaster, itís a trucker song lite, working that same cry-in-your-beer pathos, and the fiddle break that plays on that hook is terrific.
Later, the wonderfully simple "Bonne Fete" works the same vibe, but with more charm. Yes, itís "happy birthday," but not that one, and the feeling here is just so genuine itís tear-inducing. "Iíd love to give the world to you, but all I have is this song" is the central theme, translated; youíll find yourself riding along with the repeated "a toi" that finishes the first half of that. And if you find yourself feeling like youíre in a foreign land, the G run that finishes the song will have you right back at home.
Both of those songs work all the better, too, thanks to the pacing supplied by the Louis Armstrong jazz of "Thibeault," one of two tracks fronted by Muise. Itís got big-band swing with stripped-down instrumentation, a pretty good trick. Ron Bonnevie and Pip Walter, drums/percussion and bass, on this track and virtually everywhere excel in subtlety.
Later, Tordu again pull in the reins with the ballad "Compte tes Enfants," infused with backing vocals from Adele St-Pierre, ooo-oooing the support and melody over some bright but spare guitar strumming. The weeping fiddle and St-Pierreís obvious emotional investment provide great foundation for the light and thoughtful lead from Sylvain.
Just about all of this record is thoughtful, to tell the truth, which might be what results when youíve got the burden of "showing us a way of being" on your shoulders. Maybe a shtick isnít a bad thing to have.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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