Last month, wading through mountains of song, trying to make a compilation for a dear friend’s Thanksgiving party, I accidentally happened across Helena Noguera and Federico Pellegrini’s recording Bang! Dillinger Girl and Babyface Nelson [only this free on the web]. It is, undoubtedly one of the oddest and most compelling pop recordings I’ve heard in some time. It is pop, unabashedly, trashily, Euro-ly, pop. But it is also, at moments, intense, cutting edge, avant garde. The opening cut, “Stop,” opens with a single chord arpeggiated on a classical guitar, and then the two singers intone the verse–“Spent some time in the desert/Just a week or two”–with only a punctuating woman’s moan for accompanyment. The voices are just far enough apart, in time, range, intonation, to rub and grip, very much like Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson on “Alexandra Leaving”. When they get to the chorus–“Everything started with a drop of rain”–the little explosion of harmony, the brightness of Helena’s voice rising, it is nearly too much to listen to. Later songs on the album tease, joke, play. Some are in French, some in English, some in dark, genreless pop, others are music hall tunes or Western soundtrack pieces.
Helena is a model and singer whose previous work was reminiscent of Bebel Gilberto or Carla Bruni, and Federico is a guitarist who has worked in various French bands for some years–notably The Little Rabbits and French Cowboy. I am not as taken with any of their previous work as I am with this. Some collaborations are just right.
The album sends me into a reverie, makes me wonder about Paris in ways I haven’t since I was in high school and started reading Camus because it impressed a certain kind of girl. I imagine: American culture, which for years I have read as overwhelming in its imperialist power, is slowly dying on the vine, and if I were to go into a record store in Paris I would not just see the same things I see in every store in America. There are treasure troves of daunting, beautiful pop music just over the horizon. It’s not just that other places have their own pop music–I know that well enough, from Dangdut to Cantopop, from Soukous to Filmi music–but that France, which I have not thought much of in years, is newly appealing.