The songs and music of certain women have always meant so much to me -- like the late Sandy Denny, whom I've enjoyed since forever either on solo records or with the great Fairport Convention of our youth ('Rising for the Moon') -- that I can forget how my dearest "household names" might need sharing more widely.
I took to one of France's most accomplished talents in the late 1980s, when I saw a great-looking girl with a short dark haircut, long black boots, a sexy black dress and a terrific voice on TV. She had it all, coming apparently out of nowhere to be a star, with a solid musical footing in jazz and the blues. She was sophisticated, poised and had a real swing I didn't know popular French musicians could manage, apart from a guy called Claude Nougaro and people in jazz clubs. Her lyrics were strong and good, in songs such as 'Au Fur et à Mesure'. This was soon a hit single. It was also among songs I wanted to understand, in the French people actually talk rather than the kind I had learned from between grey covers at school.
I began steadily picking up her albums. A live one called 'Lumières' is currently being a pain since my version is a cassette jammed in a deck that will need taking apart to extract it, but that can wait. There's plenty more of the woman's full and sensual voice to keep me going and when she's in the mood, she will sing in English just as well as in her native tongue. One of her records is called 'The Man I Love'. That's reportedly a tribute to Sarah Vaughan as well as Gershwin for the classic title track, which is among three standards including a risk successfully taken: it's hard to bring the right touches to 'Put the Blame on Mame' from the 1946 movie 'Gilda'.
This woman does those, with 'Stormy Weather' and nine songs in French, so well I had the album a while before realising that it was her stunning début, released two years before 'Rêve Orange' turned me on in 1990. From the start, her name was in the writing credits of almost every song and it was clear who was in charge of her career.
I'm talking about Liane Foly.
The gift for live shows that can bring the house down is why 'Lumières' went back into my cassette deck and got stuck there, but until I put it to rights, I shall go on listening to what sounds suspiciously like the most personal and intimate record Liane has made, 'La Chanteuse du Bal'. Once more, in 2004, she titled an album for a great song on it by someone else, Jean-Jacques Goldman (RFI again), a "hit machine" whom she credits as the "maître 'pavibré'". I need more pop culture to know what "pavibré" means, but not knowing doesn't bother me much since JJG holds that "Je préfère un geste à un parole. On a appris à se méfier des paroles" ("I prefer a deed to a word. We've learned to be wary of words." That's a neatly ironic epigram for the Goldman home page (Fr), when he's one of the country's greatest musical wordsmiths.
She is scarcely the foremost pop icon in her native France, but Foly has a hot and well-merited public. The reason her début was so darned good is easy to find. When Eliane Folleix was born in 1962 in the big central French town of Lyon, whose citizens can seem as stolid to visitors as its renowned sausages, music was all round her in the family. Her story is told on the RFI public radio website (Eng.), where we learn that she grew up on French chanson and 1950s standards from the States and Britain.
She was a frequent local stage artist in her teens and that site tells us she could remember 80 songs a night! Then came Paris, a song-writing partner, Philippe Viannet, a musician and lover, André Manoukian, a Virgin record contract, and the Liane Foly I've adored ever since. The closest to live I have seen her was at one of the open-air concerts the French do well, but it was so big she was a distant figure in one of her sexy black dresses and I didn't have my binoculars. Even as a sultry speck, her tremendous stage talent was evident.
Foly, whose superb version of a song about what it is to take the stage amid fuss, fights and false notions of stardom must derive some of its power from her own experience, includes a second strong Goldman contribution, 'Deux centres du monde,' which is to my ears an unsentimental but moving ghost story of lovers in wartime. The rest of 'La Chanteuse du Bal' is pure Foly -- in renewed teamwork with Manoukian and Viannet after a break-up in 1996 -- and it's a consistently excellent album with a nice bonus DVD for those who want.
Foly, who reached her 40s making this studio masterpiece, has sung frequently of in-between places and states of mind hard to pin down in words, and rarely more explicitly so than in a song about feeling uprooted ('Déracinée'*), in which she is a child being carried in her weeping mother's womb on a big white ship:
"Depuis que je suis née, une petite voix étrange venue d'ailleurs cadeau des anges me parle d'Alger. Je suis déracinée."
Minus the rhymes, that means: "Since I was born, a strange voice come from elsewhere, a gift of the angels, speaks to me of Algiers. I am uprooted." In 1962, Algeria won its independence in a brutal conflict that uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. The colonial power, whose population fleeing the country by ship became known as pieds noirs or "black feet", and the new north African nation were unable even officially to call it a war until Foly was already on stage. Relations since have always been bitter-sweet and reconciliation long.
Deeply emotional but never sentimental in lyrics that can be high-octane poetry full of imaginative contrasts, love stories and some of life's big questions, Liane uses wordplay that is hard to translate, especially to do it justice, when a potent wit and a quirky sense of fun are never too far away on any of her records. On this one, 'Ma requête d'amour' (her love request) begins with a recipe:
"Une larme d'humour, une main de velours, un soupçon de mauvais garçon, deux grammes d'orgeuil. Un souffle de élégance, un nuage de chance, un zeste de toi s'inscrit déjà de ma requête à moi. Versez, mixez, mélanger, puis chauffer."
If you do speak the language and notions like that teardrop of humour and a breath of elegance fit your recipe for loving, the words are easy listening -- I like the "two grammes of pride" -- and Foly's magic works the instant you "pour, mix, stir then heat" it up with the music. But if you haven't got the French, you have still got the wonderful music, which is where Liane Foly really has her roots and never more deeply than today.
All her skills are on this album from a generous-hearted woman who knows about fulfilment in life and who is lucidly articulate in an art that has seen a broadening of her range over the years, from scat singing to good rock and plenty of soul. Themes of twins, doubles and couples permeate 'La chanteuse du bal'. If she isn't turning these around, she's "tried everything: pills, Prozac, syrups. I've read, I've meditated: yogis, Buddhas have no more effect on me," so what suits best once Liane's laid up is a call to good ol' 'Docteur Blues'.
Quite right. She is a beautiful woman who has sung about matters people keep to the bedroom or for love songs, but I have a soft spot for the closing fairy tale chanson set in her bed. On first hearing, I checked to see if Foly had worked a small miracle on a 1950s classic she grew up with, but no, it's her own. I hear 'Une étoile dort' as a fond stylistic homage to such standards and a song about the child in the woman who made the record.
"Une étoile dort dans mon lit, la lune est jalouse, de ne plus voir dans sa nuit: celle qui fut son amie. Ce soir la lune est pleine, pleine de blues."
With a star sleeping in Foly's bed, it is scarcely surprising a jealous moon's full of the blues. To find out how a scorched sun feels, you'd do much better to listen to the album than read me. From a silky seductress to a mature woman with a child still deep in her heart and sometimes on 'La Chanteuse du bal', Liane has come a long way...
...and now others who love what she does here reckon she has outdone herself, live on stage, with a double album this year: 'Une étoile dort'. Sweet dreams indeed!
*Photo credits from the album artwork: Sylvie Lancrenon
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