Bertrand Burgalat

The SSSound of MMMusic (Emperor Norton)

Just as in World War II, France has spent much of the rock era standing on the sidelines. While England and America carved up most of the Western pop empire between themselves, France was a musical irrelevancy: a land of accordions, Maurice Chevalier, rich cuisine, and Jerry Lewis fanatics.

But pop has seen a changing of the guard in the past five years, and the French are now sitting at the head of the table. No further evidence is needed than the fact that Madonna -- the most relentless trend-chaser of our time -- sought out French house alchemist Mirwaisto produce the bulk of her most recent album, Music. When you throw in the impact of the smarmy faux disco of Daft Punk, the ambient techno of Air, and the cult worship that's grown around the vintage work of songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, French music is hip like never before.

Bertrand Burgalat has been a key behind-the-scenes player in this recent French revolution. He toured as Air's bass player and lent his breathy pipes to the group's track "Sexy Boy." And his production and remix efforts have been so extensive that Germany's Bungalow Records was able to put together an impressive collection of his work for other artists (Nick Cave, April March, Pulp) last year.

On his solo debut, Burgalat confirms his status as a giddy architect of 21st-century elevator music. Mixing fluid bass lines with billowy organs, interstellar guitars, and bossa nova-cum-funk grooves, Burgalat revels in the pure pleasure of putting together cool sounds. For many who listen to this kind of thing, the appeal may be about kitsch, a touch of irony for an age when it's no longer safe to be sincere. But it works because it's not kitsch to Burgalat; it's ear candy created with so much care that it starts to resemble high art.

The record's centerpiece is the hypnotic drone of "Nonza," a perfect distillation of retro-futurism and proof positive that "da-da-da-da-da" can be a moving lyric. The most buoyant track, "Sunshine Yellow," is also its most unintentionally eerie. Over an insistent dance groove -- with chirpy, robotic female backing singers reminiscent of M's 1979 hit "Pop Muzik" -- Joanne Colan repeatedly chants what sounds like "White powder/ biological/ chemical." It's not exactly the most comforting mantra to get you through an anthrax scare, but after two listens, you probably won't be able to get it out of your head.

Considering that most of this album would have made perfect background music for a miniskirted Brigitte Bardot to cavort about in her 1968 French TV special, it's unlikely that Burgalat was trying to make any serious statements about biological warfare. The only chemistry he really seems interested in is the musical kind.

 
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