Tuesday, May 17, 2005

An Utterly Obscure Recording

Sometimes market forces are clear, sometimes they require a bit of thought, and sometimes they defy analysis. The present case is one of the last, so an economic analysis would be utterly pointless. This allows you to breathe a sigh of relief, as my economic analyses of consumer phenomena are almost invariably complex, detailed, strenuously argued, multidimensional, and ultimately, if you're willing to put in the work to understand them thoroughly, nonsensical. This also allows me to skip the whole process, rewarding though it might have been, and say: Ah, the wonder of it all.

Emballade, by the Belgian chamber-rock ensemble JULVERNE, may not be the most obscure CD I own. The competition is rather vicious in its way, and I wouldn't want to offend by offering examples, thus opening myself to charges that I have neglected obvious (that is, obscurely obvious) candidates. Emballade was Juleverne's third release in 1983. They evidently went on to release three further albums, the last in the late 90s, all of which seem to be equally obscure, if not more so. I was drawn to the CD reissue (2002) because of the presence of Michel Berckmans, among other things a rock bassoonist of note, if not celebrity, who has since the 1970s been a (founding) member of the Belgian rock group (using that terms as loosely as possible) Univers Zero. Julverne is also linked, albeit vaguely and in ways beyond my entire comprehension, to other favorites of mine, including Art Zoyd, X-Legged Sally, and Aksak Maboul (whose marvelous 1977 album Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine, would probably be one of my desert island discs if shove came to drench, and depending on how many I got to take, which ought to be at least one hundred.) Those bands might recognizably be characterized as chamber rock (or prog rock, or avant rock, or art rock), and indeed Julverne is inevitably categorized as such by the handful of get-a-life cultists who take an interest in such matters. (I know I do, but I have the good sense to keep it quiet.)

Even granted the diversity -- can I still use that word without a laughtrack? -- encompassed by these various musics, Julverne doesn't fit. And if such groups have their small but loyal cults, Julverne would seem to be at a level of recognition well beneath cultism, probably because they just do not fit. For one thing, they are "rock" only by association. They do not have drums or percussion. They do not have an electric bass. They do not in fact seem to use electronic instruments of any kind. The pieces are arranged for, among other things, flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and string trio -- plus occasional voice, generally a creditable soprano, with a suave recitation (in French) at one point, and a "Three Little Maids From School" type chorus at another.

Although there is some original material, nothing here would have sounded out of place in 1930. Indeed, much of it might have seemed antiquated by 1930, but quite at home in 1900 or 1910 or 1920. There is a lovely performance of The Sheik (Dans Immense Sahara), a tune that had previously eluded my attention, even though it was evidently recorded by the wonderful Lucien Boyer at some point. Also included are two ragtime numbers, a tango, a few sentimental ditties, a politely swinging version of Ellington's Caravan, and an ancient popular song by Gus Kahn. Performances are clever, sometimes ingenious, but never obtrusive, and heaven forfend that delicacy should ever yield to mere virtuosity. This is a delight throughout (I know this because I kept smiling), and if I were to categorize Julverne I'd be tempted to term them a society orchestra, or a cafe band.

What makes it all so strange is that the musicians are 70s-80s progressive rockers, avant gardists, and jazz experimentalists. (I know: "progressive," "avant garde," and "experimental" can cover a multitude of sins. But not everywhere and always. The trick is to find out where and when.) Julverne even seem to be irony free, although they clearly have a sense of humor and affection for their music. But even if you had been able to find their recordings, they would have been filed in the back of the store, under Imports: Rock. The minuscule numbers of listeners who might have been attracted to them because of their connections to outrock would have been as bewildered as, say, Led Zeppelin fans finding their favorites suddenly doing accurate covers of Paul Whiteman charts. Circa 1980. Perhaps I'm unfair. Perhaps they would have found the music so far removed from their experience and expectations as to be utterly outrageous. But I suppose nobody much of any stripe ever located the album to begin with, so their reactions are moot. (I did find a review on one prog-rock website. The closest comparisons in the reviewer's experience were Satie and Stravinsky(!))

Yes, this is an utterly obscure recording. I'm glad to have it.