Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
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Jean-Claude Vannier Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia
To suggest that a Mike Patton album is interesting is rather redundant but I got a real kick out of this one, created in collaboration with French legend Jean-Claude Vannier. The latter seems to be regarded nowadays mostly for his work arranging music for Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy and other French legends, but he made plenty of interesting solo music too, including a wild 1972 debut album, L'enfant assassin des mouches, or The Child Fly Assassin.
The album was apparently constructed with the two men on either side of the Atlantic. Vannier conjured up ideas which he sent to Patton, who played with them and sent them back. Patton recorded in the States with his band, while Vannier recorded in France with an orchestra. Some snippets were previously written and recorded, but incorporated into new music, while most are new.
If that conjures up images of Frank Zappa's patchwork studio creations, that would be fair because there's certainly some Zappa here, both musically, on experimental songs like Cold Sun Warm Beer with its varied voices (Patton's remind of Captain Beefheart) and wilder instrumentation, and lyrically, on scatalogical songs like On Top of the World or Pink and Bleue, which starts out, "When I drink too much, I shit my pants."
There are other obvious influences here too and they tend to make themselves that way quickly. The opening track, Ballade C.3.3, for instance, has Patton sound rather like Nick Cave but the words come from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I don't recognise any of the other lyrics but it would not surprise me if other songs took a similar approach. Hungry Ghost is full of dark poetry and A Schoolgirl's Day feels like a prose writing exercise.
Camion moves firmly into Tom Waits territory, with Vannier providing a set of odd instrumentation and Patton shifting into dark lounge singer mode. There's an old quote from Vannier that explains why this is natural. If I'd read it without context, I'd think that, "I've always been interested by the wrong side of the music, the wrong notes" would be a Tom Waits line, but it was Vannier.
There's a lot more Waits here than Cave, but there's quite a bit of both. I think the two combine best on Browning, a song about the gun, with the most involved delivery from Patton, who croons like Cave, whistles like Waits and even howls at points like Screaming Jay Hawkins. I love when artists that I admire start playing in territory mastered by other artists that I admire.
As ought to be inevitable with Vannier involved, there's also a particularly strong influence from French yé-yé music, about which I clearly know a lot less than I should. This was pop music but counterculture pop music back in the sixties, with much taken from English language rock 'n' roll. I've heard Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday and others but, like Patton has apparently done lately, I should dig deeper.
There's French music everywhere here, but it becomes overtly at points, like in Insolubles, with Patton crooning to a backing of xylophone and accordion, or On Top of the World, a funky piece complete with handclaps and whistles, which nonetheless punks up at points in tone and lyrical content. There's a carnival organ on Hungry Ghost that could come from the Tom Waits influence or from France. It's great to see worlds collide here and suddenly make far more sense than they did previously.
As always with experimental albums, not everything works here but I dug it a lot. And, as always with Mike Patton, songs go to very strange and versatile places. One minute, we're listening to the operatic vocals of Anne Germain on Hungry Ghost, the next we're in the middle of what sounds like a domestic argument in Corpse Flower, which, I should add, is definitely not the flower on the cover. Why, I have no idea.
If your ears are always open for new sounds and your tastes are a lot wider than the regular rock and metal spectrum, you could do a lot worse than to check out this album. Let it be your gateway drug into the wonderful world of Mike Patton or, for me, that of Jean-Claude Vannier.