Artist: Brigitte Fontaine
Album: Comme a la Radio
France, though an undoubtedly beautiful country, is certainly more well known for its contributions to the culinary arts over the musical arts. Though countless jazz musicians (and Jim Morrison…and Jerry Lee Lewis) made their homes in France over the years, the “essential” music that has been exported over the decades has been rather minimal. However, one French musician that simply cannot be ignored is the amazingly experimental, and undeniably talented Brigitte Fontaine. Though she did not achieve much worldwide recognition, her albums remain some of the most innovative and original works of music to this day. Though it is hard to choose her finest work, perhaps her most “accessible” album is her 1971 release, Comme a la Radio.
To be avant or progressive in 1971 was not all that uncommon, but the way in which Brigette Fontaine went about it, she was truly the “bleeding edge” of “experimental” music. The album is a bit different from the rest of the work of Brigitte Fontaine in that is a true collaboration with her writing partner, Areski, as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This combination of artists who loved nothing more than pushing the boundaries of what “was” music, blend perfectly on every song, and it is clear that they are constantly trying to push the others deeper into the experiment. Even the way in which the music is mixed pushes the common notions of “how” music should sound. On Comme a la Radio, the myriad of percussive instruments are very far forward in the mix, while the horns and strings are pushed well into the background. This complete reversal of “normal” recording practices further makes the album something that truly must be experienced to be appreciated.
Musically, Comme a la Radio is all over the place. With songs ranging from AfroBeat inspired chants to nearly acoustic songs, which let Fontaine fully display her amazing voice, the album is truly as eclectic as one will find anywhere. The Art Ensemble of Chicago provide the album with a gorgeous, often ethereal mood, and their own experimentation melds perfectly with that of Fontaine. The Ensemble brings everything but the kitchen sink to the record, from a chorus of muted trumpets, to dueling saxophones, and even an appearance from a bouzouki (go ahead and google that). Jumping from hard-bop to modal jazz and everything in between, the music is almost constantly bordering on chaotic, and it often leaves a rather eerie mood in its wake. This brass madness, combined with the cavalcade of percussion and sounds supplied by Areski, Comme a la Radio is a sonic explosion like no other ever recorded.
Though there are many, the true gem of Comme a la Radio, as is the case with her entire catalog, is the stunning voice of Brigette Fontaine. From whispers to belting out perfect pitches, the range and power of Fontaine’s vocals remain largely unmatched. Often times, Fontaine’s voice tip-toes over the music, creating something that can only be described as an avant lullaby. There are even tracks, like “Lettre à Monsieur le Chef de Gare de la Tour de Carol,” where Fontaine delivers a calming, somewhat erratic spoken word performance over music reminiscent of the sounds of India. Regardless of how she is approaching the vocals, Brigette Fontaine delivers stunning performances on every track on Comme a la Radio.
Being “experimental” in the music scene of 1971 was something that hordes of musicians claimed. At the front of those who truly were pushing the boundaries of what was “popular music” or “music” in general was French songbird, Brigette Fontaine. Releasing a number of impressive, truly avant records throughout the 1970’s, on Comme a la Radio, she enlisted the help of song-writing partner Areski, as well as the equally exploratory Art Ensemble of Chicago. Combining the unquestionable talents of the three parties results in some of the most original and unsurpassed musical experimentation ever recorded. Though the album varies in style, at the core is truly stunning as well as the sensational vocals of Fontaine. To experience something like no other, and yet something that is a true joy to experience, find a copy of Brigette Fontaine’s brilliant 1971 release, Comme a la Radio.
Standout tracks: “Tanka I & II,” “J’ai 26 Ans,” and “Le Noir Cest Mieux Choisi.”