69: Novo Rock

The grunge era was officially still very much the ‘dark days’ as far as French music goes – it would still be a few more years before Daft Punk et al would arrive to restore confidence. Of course, it’s highly possible that there may have been a number of decent and obscure rock outfits operating in the early 90s but Sloy were one of the very few to gain international acceptance, getting the John Peel seal of approval and Steve Albini production. Now, Armand Gonzalez and and Virginie Peitavi – (the two-thirds of the group who now make up 69) are keen to stress that they were contemporaries of the US grunge acts, not copyists or Johnny-come-latelies. They formed in 1991, so there’s no certainly evidence of serious stylistic time-lag (as witnessed more recently with France’s Libertines-inspired wave of guitar acts), and the geek-grunge (Devo were an influence) was delivered with bug-eyed conviction.
69, although they undoubtedly have a similar quirk factor, are a distinctly different proposition, and more obviously a production project than Sloy. There are few real drums, mostly analogue drum synthesisers like the Pearl Syncussion, and lots of pingy ring-modulated sounds, jerky guitar stabs and dissonant  keyboards, recalling the getting-down-in-an-uptight-way style of Talking Heads and several other New York groups of the same era (oh and Devo again) but with a rockabilly-ish tint. Gonzalez’s already flexible vocals are frequently treated to take on more elastic, cartoonish qualities as he alternates between chanting and crooning. On ‘Love Excess’ he comes over like early Roxy-era Bryan Ferry whinnying his way through one of the Blues Explosion’s mellower numbers.

The predominance of ‘x’s in the song titles suggests that this is very much intended as a pop-art eXplosion: ‘Flexty Body’, ‘Vixena’, ‘Two Vox’ and, of course, ‘Mpop 80 X’Plosion’ (a somewhat Stereolab-y title, that); the good news is that it feels almost as fresh as it would like to. While a lot of post-punk revival has dealt in a rehashing a few signifiers (say cowbells, that discopunk beat, those sharp lead-guitar lines), ‘Novo Rock’ does more than pay lip-service – it is imbued with a genuinely exploratory spirit, so while the core songs and themes stalk rather well-charted trash territory (Rock’N’Latex, ‘Dominatrix’), the compensation comes in the fact that they are treated as springboards for all kinds of hugely enjoyable sonic play, from the chorus of kids on the title track to the delectably sproingy guitar solo on ‘Mpop 80 X’Plosion’.

David McKenna