Albert Marcoeur: Album a Colorier – Resisting definition
I read in a Pitchfork review for another album, that Marcoeur has been called the French Zappa, except that he doesn’t sound much like Zappa and he lives. I agree that he isn’t like Zappa (at all, at all) but I thought it was a rather funny definition.
Originally from Normandy, Albert Marcoeur defuses all attempts to classify his art. In the Anglo-Saxon world, his loquacious, non-linear style is most often compared to Zappa or Captain Beefheart. Elsewhere, faute de mieux, he is sometimes thrown into the RIO category. The reasons could be historical (for example his legendary concerts with Zamla Mammaz Manna), but are nonetheless misleading. It is known, for example, that Marcoeur has been rather critical of Chris Cutler’s ideology (or drumming) and reserved vis à vis improvisation. I’ve also read in France he is somewhat reviled in ‘finer’ record stores. Dissmissed as ‘pop-variety’ in good jazz stores and generally and indie trash in others, I found this definition to be odd as well. I certainly wouldn’t call this variety or pop. I wouldn’t even call it Indie.
Prog Archives had this to say:
In 1970, the realisations of Marcoeur’s ‘unclassifiable’ forays found their conception, marking the being of studio life. It was to be another four years until the release of his first self-titled album, which still ranks as his greatest recording to date. Loosely classified as proto-RIO chamber-rock, the album lays down several RIO foundations [much like Robert Wyatt’s, “The End of an Ear”], later to be picked up by the likes of Aksak Maboul. As with all great albums, controversy was only a step around the corner, with a helping hand of an unauthorised ‘loan’, the albums closing bars containing “two two-note chords that I had found on a jazz classics album”.
I “only” have Album a Colorier, his second album made in 1974. I’ve heard snippets from the first studio album (made the same year) and you tube bits and pieces of the other albums. My advice is if you enjoy raw drama based prog, you’ll find this album exciting.
Marcoeur’s beginnings may have been in party music, but he soon developed his own style through studio experimentation. He’s come out of that with these short bursts of sound colour, still with their tight structure, surprising rhythmic turns, capsizing harmonics, atmospheric contrasts, melancholic interjections and self-deprecating gags.
He has a pretty awful voice, and therefore doesn’t sing much at all. Instead of living in denial and going for songbird, he recites, half-sings, murmurs, comments and wanders. I hunted some definitions of the lyrics. My school girl French couldn’t keep up, but I’ve found he mostly questions the absurdity of daily life. He is clever when attacking non-reflecting schematism. His poetry, as his music, draws its vitality from brevity. What we express in entire symphonies, Marcoeur encapsulates in a stanza. Our epics are his aphorisms. Sonic Asymetry do a wonderful breakdown of each song with lyric review, so I’ve added their notes as well as my own detail to the track listing / breakdown below:
This ode to crowded loneliness greets us with street honking. Everyone avoids Monsieur Lepousse, or so we learn throughout this saccadé, nervous number. Christian Leroux’s signature guitar beadwork is endorsed here by a male chorus and clarinets courtesy Pierre Vermeire and Albert Marcoeur himself. Marcoeur’s half-devoiced “singing” introduces us to the universe of the solitary character. The structure of the song is fractured several times and when the narrator “steps over to the other sidewalk” to avoid Monsieur Lepousse, the time signature changes abruptly. This bold, vigorous introduction grinds to a halt when a retarded radio commercial cuts in with a meaty Hammond organ.
It was the quiet energy here that dragged me into Albert Marcoeur. I was gifted this album without knowing anything about him (however still knowing to trust the giver) and this track won me over immediately. By the time I hit the voice at the end with the Hammond organ and the abrupt ending I knew I had something extra special in my hands.
A embarrassing story that could draw many interpretations. It opens with a party talk, until a Mark Boston-like angular bass (Pascal Arroyo) rivets our attention to theperiples of the narrator seeking refuge in the restrooms of coffee shops. Despite the full-blown orchestration encompassing guitar (François Ovide), bassoon (Denis Brély), soprano saxophone (François Lassale), bass clarinet (Pierre Vermeire) and alto saxophone (Albert himself), the lead vocal has been mixed up front, à la française. The dominance of the voice in the mix and the revolutionary character of Marcoeur’s infantile Weltanschauung generated exorbitant expectations at the time of these recordings. But the cult following that his poetry accrued was later disavowed by the artist. Here, he delivers the dark-humored text at hyper-speed. Back in the restroom, the narrator is startled: “someone wants to enter” – his panic is accentuated by a vicious wind section fanfare which sounds like proto-punk jazz avant la lettre. Were it not for the vocal mix, this could be Doctor Nerve’s downtown greeting.
Our character is told that the café will close soon; he picks up a bundle of used toilet paper and leaves the premises. Nobody noticed that where he was – or so we are told by a comforting trio of bass, guitar and saxophone. He moves to another café, followed by a voyeuristic phrase from the saxophone.
Le nécessaire à chaussures
Le nécessaire à contrastes… Between a plaintive murmur and an ultra fast, anguished vocal eruption that prefigures punk. Against an incessant, jerky fusion bass (Pierre Vermeire), two drums (Gérard and Claude Marcoeur) and guitar, Marcoeur spits out his story of an onset of depression after the loss of the shoeshine set and the partner’s indifference to the character’s plight.
The piece develops around a pathological clash between the hushed abandon of the storyteller and explosive vandalism from trumpet (Gérard Nouvel), trombone (Pierre Vermeire) and clarinet (Albert Marcoeur).
Le père Grimoine
With acoustic piano, Marcoeur delivers, sotto voce, a melancholical elegy for an old man who dies in his bed, witnessed only by his orphaned, thirsty plants. The bass and drum duo of Pascal Arroyo and Claude Marcoeur is pleasantly impressionistic and emollient. An effete, wimpish chorus sidesteps the satirical minefield and the heartfelt mood is further enhanced by Marcoeur’s breaking voice. He quavers down to an Italian-style recitative with acoustic piano, only to receive a calibrated support, again, from the mellow rhythm section, the underwhelming chorus and bandoneon (Michel Cousin).
This begins with an exotica-styled percussive intro, quickly overturned by a Middle Eastern flute (François Lasalle). Imperceptibly, the dynamic surges, culminating dubiously with an overblown, strained bass clarinet sforzando and a chorus of pseudo-castrati. This will remain an instrumental étude, distinguishing between a melodious climax, an overdrive bass and the ever vulnerable, sheepish chorus. Despite its over-reliance on sentimental tail-offs, it works.
Le jus d’abricot
After a brief guitar and bass opening, a fanfare of fake jazz saxophones and balafon snaps with a force of a category five hurricane. But a surprise is just around the bar. Were it not for the obsessional, husky sax screech, we would probably be beguiled thatla chanson française n’est pas loin. In fact, Marcoeur’s non-melodic, ultra-rapid recitation is sequestred by a refrain of cleanly soaring notes that could turn him into a radio personality. What saves him from the ignominy is the Microscopic Septet-like arrangement for strident horns (Peter McGregor, Marc Duconseille, Gérard Nouvel, Pierre Vermeire) balafon and bongos (Gérard Marcoeur). You have to go back to Michel Portal’s early recordings (e.g. “Splendid Yzlment”) to find a similarly dissenting reed orchestration in France.
La cueillette de noix
The absurd text about a nut collector, obsessed with his annual ritual, eventually turns into a Marcoeurian version of Nicene Creed… The texture of the composition is entirely subjugated to the power of the text. It adumbrates, illustrates, contrasts and obscures the surrealist narrative. Guitar, bass and baritone saxophone enter impassively,camminando. The lullaby-like tenderness sounds somewhat fallacious, doubled with dissonant piccolos, reed pipes (Lassalle and Vermeire) and a choir of naughty boys. As often in Marcoeur’s “songs”, constancy and continuity are poor bets. All of a sudden, guitars and a rhythms section pick up in a distinctly ‘fusion’ mode. François Ovide’s narration is equally transient. A barrage of flutes and guitars strikes, tangentially accompanied by a very liberal percussion. The bizarre ending of the “prayer” is lined with very secular saxophones. This is one of the best on the album for my money.
Elle était belle
One of Marcoeur’s most memorable stories is rendered atemporal as a ballad of infatuation. The narrator – a young saxophone player – fancies a club-going beauty, but his emotions are distinctly fragile and girlish. Whereas in other songs, Marcoeur’s observations partake a whiff of fresh infantilism, the expressive confessions of this narrator are almost vaginal. The male choruses reiterate the character’s longing after an inaccessible object of desire. But then, Marcoeur’s rendition falls into a quasi-comical opera buffo territory. “What is the name of the instrument that you play?” she asks. “I play saxophone. It’s ugly, she says, I like guitar better”. The plasticity of the male chorus throws us back to the 1960s style, yet avoids the farcical reefs of doo-woop hoods or surf-‘n’beach far niente.
Fermez la porte
Pierre Vermeire’s only composition on this record is a juxtaposition of eavesdropping on a conversation, door slamming and a fin de siècle-type brass band crowned with a puerile piccolo.
The band’s tour de force. The group is finally revealed as a potent dynamo of woodwind power and guitars. Marcoeur shouts out a bizarre story of a workman whose face was covered with dirt that turned into a veritable mask, until the day it fell off and he had to look for a new job. In a deranged exhibit of metatextual self-deprecation, the ramshackle chorus begins to quarrel, but the recording engineer encourages the gang to plod on. We will never know if the musicians really tell us something or just play, maybe play at playing themselves. The amusing mirror images distort Marcoeur “singing”, so closely shadowed by the guitar and exquisite drumming from Marcoeur brothers (Claude and Gérard). The raw power of the ferocious, brazen reed section commands respect.
In a 180 degrees reversion, a very sugary brass band illustrates the conative monologue. “Open yourself, but close the door”, supplicates the author.
If you understand French, or can get hold of the translations, then you’ll never tire of Marcoeur’s talent as a composer and a lyricist. Here’s a discog for reference.
1. Albert MARCOEUR: “Albert Marcoeur” (1972-73)
2. Albert MARCOEUR: “Album à colorier” (1976)
3. Albert MARCOEUR: “Armes et cycles” (1979)
4. Albert MARCOEUR / THIS HEAT: “Revue cassette Tago Mago” MC (1979)
5. Albert MARCOEUR: “Celui où y’a Joseph” (1983)
6. Albert MARCOEUR: “Compte rendu d’analyse” SP (1984)
7. Albert MARCOEUR: “Ma vie avec elles” (1985-90)
8. Albert MARCOEUR: “Sports et percussions” (1992-93)
9. Albert MARCOEUR: “M.a.r. et cœur comme le coeur” (1982-94)
10. Albert MARCOEUR: “Plusieurs cas de figure” (1998-2000)
11. Albert MARCOEUR: “L’apostrophe” (2004)
12. Albert MARCOEUR: “Bus 24” DVD (2006)
13. Albert MARCOEUR: “Travaux pratiques” (2007)