Vive le Pop!

This wasn't French rock 'n' roll, exactly, which always seemed to lose something important in the translation. Ye-ye was its own form, with singers performing with a strange, exotic passion; it had the pop immediacy of Phil Spector's hit-parade days, but it lacked the copycat rock moves that usually made such stuff so transparent. (See Johnny Hallyday.) Blake needed to hear more but could find little beyond records by Françoise Hardy -- gifted, yes, but more common and accessible than the more unusual and interesting singers -- in local shops. It wasn't until she made a visit to Montreal that she was able to begin a meaningful collection of ye-ye, including an obscure song called "Caribou," which was a huge hit in Canada but unknown even in France. Blake's own recording of the song was released as the first April March single in 1992, beginning a seven-year run of releases of which the main link was Blake's continued fascination with French culture.

"They seem earthier than Americans," says Blake, now 33 years old. "They are so at ease with their sexuality, with death, with all these taboos that we have. It seems like a healthier way to live. The whole stigma in our society about death, nobody talks about it, and it obviously causes all kinds of fear. In Europe it's part of the daily routine." Even the naked pop emotionalism of such potential American counterparts as Lesley Gore falls short by comparison. Like everybody who listens to French music with even a bit of interest, Blake has long been drawn to the sly, cerebral nonsense and racy winking of Gainsbourg, but she goes way deeper than that: One of her best covers is a plaintive acoustic version of "Cet Air La," a song originally recorded by archetypal ye-ye girl Gall, whose voice and sound, even today, conjure up junior high and lollipops. "I didn't try to mimic it, but I learned things from it," Blake says of the ye-ye sound. "The style of a lot of the singers is a lot more immediate; they don't use vibrato, it's very plain and immediate. It's very intimate and has more personality to me. There's a lot of pathos in French music, and that's what I tried to get. Nobody was interested in this music, but I just forged ahead."

She released a string of records and EPs, including the self-explanatory Gainsbourgsion and a couple of collaborations with the genre-hoppers of Los Cincos. Eventually people started to pay attention, including some of Blake's musical heroes. Since her April March persona was born, Blake has performed or recorded with Jonathan Richman, Ronnie Spector, and Brian Wilson, the last of whom has even joined her for occasional vocal harmonies.

"He's funny," she says. "He was coming up with all these parts. It's beautiful. One song we were working on together, he said it could be number one in Motor Trend magazine. He comes up with these weird, cool things."

For Chrominance Decoder Blake traveled to Paris to work with producer Bertrand Burgalat, who was astonished a few years ago to discover that an American singer had not only discovered a genre of music that even some French found embarrassing but was basing a personal sound and career on it. Here was a singer who'd covered the obscure "Caribou" when he had never even heard it. Together they collaborated on most of the album's songs (only "Martine" was not written by one or the other of them) and reinterpreted the ye-ye sound with synths, mixed with real strings and drums and basses and guitars; the result is March's most consistent and engaging record to date.

The album opens with the delicate, jaunty piano melody of "Garden of April" -- a song that eventually eases into a rich ye-ye arrangement that mixes woodwinds and harmonica. Much of what follows may prove to be an acquired taste to American ears more accustomed to pop built on well-trod R&B templates; the French pop tradition owes more to jazz and classical forms, though much of Blake's music is reminiscent of the wilder, late '60s twists from her onetime collaborator Brian Wilson. The song "Superbagneres" is a fine example of pop that sounds utterly foreign, its melodies strangely adrift, its beats ebbing and flowing beneath Blake's undulating French vocals. More direct is the playful march of "Mon Petit Ami" and the cruel sass of "No Parachute" ("She's gonna drop you/It'll be cute"), which blend strings, horns, harpsichord, and old-school synth sounds. It's a singular mixture and one that fit easily alongside the breezy retro-futurism of Air when the two acts toured together last fall. But even with growing attention from pop-music cultists and peers for her work, Blake isn't exactly expecting mass excitement over a brand of music most Americans don't even realize exists.

"When I hear some of these things, I'm just, like, wow," she says. "I think other people are also starting to go wow about it. Meanwhile I just kind of go on pleasing myself. It's too hard to do anything with an audience in mind. I don't see how that can get you anywhere. How can you guess what people want? I know what I want.

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