photo: Stephen Barker
Les Chauds Lapins (“the hot rabbits”), lead by New York’s Kurt Hoffman and Meg Reichardt, specialize in a repertoire of French swing from the 1920’s through the 40’s. The group has re-arranged long-forgotten French classics for banjo-ukes, string trio, guitar and winds, mixing the rootsiness of early American jazz with the lushness of a Bernard Hermann film soundtrack.
Prior to their turn as French entertainers, Meg Reichardt was best known as one fourth of Americana group The Roulette Sisters and Kurt Hoffman as co-leader of cult instrumentals band The Ordinaires, and as sideman and arranger for such luminaries as They Might be Giants, Frank Black and and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The music on Amourettes oscillates between romantic and quirky, retro and modern, French and American. It appeals equally to fans of roots music, swing and classic film soundtracks.
Les Chauds Lapins is French for "hot rabbits": lust-filled animals intent on seeking — and finding — pleasure. "Amourettes," Les Chauds Lapins' second album, is the result of that quest for pleasure.
Neither Kurt nor Meg are French. Their leap from art-rock and Americana to the world of French chanson may seem far-fetched, but the progression isn't as absurd as it may seem.
"Meg and I had independently spent a lot of time with American popular music from the 20s through 40s. The pivotal moment for us was the discovery of singer/songwriter Charles Trenet" says Kurt. "He combined American big band swing with French chanson like no one else had up to that point. For us, it was like the dream where you find the hidden door into the extra room in your apartment — Trenet pointed the way to an entire parallel universe of great jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs....in French. And as in a dream, we examined them, only to discover they were sometimes a bit strange."
"Watching clips of him perform," says Meg, "you find he's so debonair and charming. Then you check out the lyrics — it's a whole separate surprising treat." A close friend of Jean Cocteau and his circle, Trenet mixed absurdist humor, surrealist touches and puns. Trenet's "Le Fils de la Femme Poisson," for instance, proves to be an ode to unreciprocated love, in this case between a headless woman and her hapless suitor.
"Trenet was your quintessential art-pop guy," adds Kurt, "He came from an art school and filmmaking background. Smart and literate, he wrote quirky, witty books. That background gave him the chops and confidence to write songs that are artfully unconventional. He was gay, and certain songs have intriguing subtexts. And yet he was massively successful in France."
The explosive development of American jazz in the 1920s launched a worldwide cultural revolution not unlike that of psychedelia close to fifty years later. Local music scenes around the globe voraciously absorbed jazz into their local styles — and France wasn't spared.
"You listen to French Music Hall stuff before the mid-twenties" says Kurt, "you find all these rumpty-tump marches and sentimental waltzes. Certainly cheeky, literate and wonderful in its way, but musically, it's like the end the nineteenth century stretching on. When World War I came along, it wrecked everything, of course, but it also deposited some notable african-American musicians in Paris. And then you start to find all this hybrid music in France, still literate, whimsical and French, but absorbing all this great early jazz style and energy."
The Lapins' love of Trenet lead them to rediscover lesser-known artists such as the writing team of Mireille and Jean Nohain. Mireille, too, was associated with the avant-garde — indeed her husband was Emmanuel Berl, the celebrated writer, political philosopher and relative of Marcel Proust. Mireille gave up a career as a classical pianist to write songs influenced by Cole Porter and sing them in a droll, piping falsetto.
"Mireille and Nohain, or Trenet add details you will not find in any other song," says Kurt. "Mireille and Nohain's 'Ce Petit Chemin' is about making out in the woods, but by the time the song is over, we've encountered highway repairmen, talking rabbits and the lovers are smeared with berry juice. Musically, conceptually, lyrically, the song is like nothing else. You sense lucid minds going off the grid."
Like the French models they emulate, Les Chauds Lapins take their music off the grid. Their arrangements are true neither to time nor space. Their arrangements contrast scored strings and horns with vintage fretted instruments, most notably banjo ukuleles, a hybrid instrument popular in the 20s and 30s. "Due to the instrument's stretched animal skin resonator, it's got a distinctive sound, earthy, percussive and colored by surprising overtones. Need it be said, banjo ukes are not typical of French music at any point in history." By mixing the Americana quirkiness of banjo-ukes with the narrative versatility of a string trio, they remain faithful to the inventive spirit of the original songs and give them a luster that eschews quaintness and easy cliché.
Their new album, "Amourettes" is a tribute to music Les Chauds Lapins intimately identifies with.
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