Sunday, 5 February 2017

Chaleur Humaine - Christine and the Queens

Provenance: I got this from my partner, Sea, for Christmas 2016. Today is an apt time to revisit this album for the blog as this weekend, five years ago, we married on a cold day in Kansas. Same as this weekend; married on Saturday 4 February, Superbowl on the Sunday.

For people who have shared a life together for over half a decade, we actually have little common ground when it comes to music. Our biggest overlap is Tom Waits, and I dig most of Michael Jackson's catalogue. I've been pleasantly surprised by Feist, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Wood Brothers, all of which have come to my by way of Sea, but aside from that my only other real concession has been that Tupac is "not shit" (I believe those were my actual words).

I can't think of much from my CD collection that Sea proactively listens to. My partner's (rather good) impersonations of Neil Young and AC/DC lead me to believe that both have been listened to, if not enjoyed, on more than once occasion. It's as if we both have a vague understanding of each other's musical preferences without being completely fluent. I had no idea who Christine and the Queens were - or, as it turns out, is (Christine and the Queens is the stage name of Heloise Letissier) - so this was quite a gamble on Sea's behalf. How did it turn out?

Review: How boring - it seems that five years of matrimony has actually bred a degree of familiarity between us. I wish I could tell you that my partner had me figured all wrong, because that's more interesting, isn't it? How two people can spend so long in each other's company but not really know each other. On the one hand, Chaleur Humaine is not an album I would've purchased if left to my own devices, but lo and behold, it pushes all the right buttons because I'm a sucker for this kind of ear candy.

There's bits of trip-hop, borrowings from glitch-pop, a slightly dubstep feel to a couple of tracks ('No Harm Is Done' being the most obvious example) and even echoes of early electronica like Space (the French band) and Yellow Magic Orchestra. What really makes me give a shit is that the songwriting is so, so strong. Christine and the Queens always does something interesting with the melody. That said, one of the vocal melodies in 'Saint Claude' drove me nuts for about two weeks until I realised it was the same as 'I Saw Red' by Warrant, and 'Jonathan' sounds like a stately, slow-mo version of The Stranglers' 'Always The Sun', but I like both songs so no complaints here.

Great care is also paid to the acoustic quality of the singing; and so often French is sung instead of English, where the French is more playful, or alienating, or beautiful. Letissier's voice swoops, climbs, croons and declaims, sometimes in the span of one song. As far as I can make out (I'm one of the few British kids who didn't study French in school) the subject matter of each song is more interesting than your average pop fluff. For example - "It" name-checks Emily Dickinson and appears to be about the kind of gender performativity Judith Butler and (especially) Jack Halberstam wrote about. This ain't yer dad's high-concept Anglo-Franco art pop.

(As a student I read Jack Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place (listed in most places under the name Judith Halberstam - I believe they use both masculine and feminine pronouns, so apologies if I've fucked this up) and felt compelled to email the author - his address was in the back of the book, I believe - with a few thoughts and questions. To my surprise, not only was Halberstam gracious enough to reply to my sophomore witterings, he also expressed a desire to discuss my notes in person next time he came to the UK. I panicked and never replied - sorry! Can I also recommend In a Queer Time and Place as an excellent work about queer subcultures? One of the few books at the more theoretical end of the scale to make me laugh, too.)

Given the somewhat esoteric themes explored on Chaleur Humaine one could be forgiven for thinking that the album lacks soul. The absence of analogue instrumentation means the music certainly possesses a mechanical iciness, and this is matched by an elegance that borders on archness. There is certainly little of the whispered confessional here; however, Chaleur Humaine is the product of such singular vision and execution that it is inescapably personal. I'd love to see this all performed live.

One criticism - rhythmically speaking, Chaleur Humaine is rather one note. Aside from variances in tempo, you get pretty much the same beat pulsing through each song. Listened to in one sitting, the effect can be a little wearying. A minor complaint, but one that merits a mention only because everything else is so well crafted. I look forward to seeing what Christine and the Queens comes up with next.

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