Les Trans Musicales de Rennes 2010: Hangaring Around

(Lena Deluxe picture courtesy of Hervé Leteneur/La Marmite)
If you want the background to this festival in the delightful Rennes, last year’s report has all the information you’re likely to need; the history part doesn’t change much. But I did add to my experience of the fair city by finally attending the big Saturday morning market, the Marché des Lices, to breakfast on oysters (a love affair that started here) and white wine in the company of Nlf3. Just to make it clear, Nlf3 aren’t always hanging about the Place des Lices waiting to have breakfast with tourists… but the rest of the experience would be easy enough to recreate for anyone wishing to do so.
If you’ve just caught up on your Trans knowledge by reading the account from last year, you’ll know that the festival is divided between a number of sites in and around Rennes. There was a definite swing back to the Parc Expo (the aircraft hangars outside the town centre) this year after the experiment of using the main hall of Le Liberté (in Rennes proper) for some shows last time but there were still performances in Le Liberté’s smaller room upstairs, which is where I kicked off the festival on Thursday with Lena Deluxe (pictured top). When we saw them in a bar here in 2007 and the following year in London they were a pretty bare-boned garage rock outfit: two girls on stage, singer-guitarist Lena (stage name) and drummer Lili, operating under the influence of the Velvets and Jefferson Airplane. Since then, Lena has taken on a new drummer Alexandre Lamoly and bassist Richard Horon, and expanded the group’s sound to encompass melancholy synth-pop (‘Reeperbahn’) and a more elaborate pop-rock sound that’s reminiscent at times of Throwing Muses (‘Love Is All Around’). She’s also stretching her voice, particularly on a startlingly gorgeous new ballad which at the moment is going by the name 'Rainbow Song'. Live it outstrips the already tingly demo on the band's MySpace page.
Over in the town’s Medieval centre, around the Place St Anne, the next show was part of Bars En Trans sister festival. The bar in question, Le Papier Timbre, has opened recently and is a real curiosity: a bookshop crossed with a bar crossed with a healthfood shop, so you can pick up organic pasta, have an (excellent) beer and leaf through the French translation of Ian Macdonald’s ‘Revolution in the Head’ while you’re at it. First on in the back room here was indie-ish chanteuse Marie-Flore who I was largely unmoved by the show but, for the sake of balance, I should say that regular Rockfort contributor Kieron Tyler saw it differently.
We were in total agreement over what came next though – Kyrie Kristmanson (pictured below) was even better than at Café Oto a few weeks back. Not only was she in trio formation this time rather than solo but she was also facing a livelier, more restless audience. She had to fight to communicate through the hubbub and gave a more intense, incantatory performance (including an a capella take on a Medieval trobaritz song) as a result. She could well be the best female Canadian singer-songwriter since Mary Margaret O’Hara and, though I’m not suggesting that they sound alike (Kyrie comes over a little less possessed, for starters) there are similarities. In both cases the music, though subtly ingenious, is sometimes superficially conventional enough that it could pass unremarked if played in the background at a hairdressers. But that surface is always disturbed by an anxious, restless undercurrent (perhaps it’s that same desire Kyrie talked about in our interview). And as with O’Hara, it’s the voice, with its stutters, the strange tension and release in the phrasing, that is the primary vehicle for that energy.
At the Parc Expo, reached via a dedicated bus (which on Thursday was still relatively quiet), the non-French highlights were Egyptian Hip Hop, who rose quite casually to the occasion, and Magnetic Man. Donso, meanwhile, are a Franco-Malian crew led by the Ed Banger-signed Krazy Baldhead (aka Pierre-Antoine Grison) and delivered an electro-fied take on African dance styles which centred on the sound of Thomas Guillaume’s donso n’goni – a kind of lute – with vocals and guitar from Gedeon Papa Diarra and Guimba Kouyate (both well-travelled session musicians) respectively. Although it’s not the first crossover of this type, it felt easily as seamless, if less poppy (and also less cloying), than Amadou & Mariam’s Damon Albarn collaboration ‘Sabali’.
Drum & bass DJ Lady Late (pictured above)’s session in a curtained space dubbed the Green Room (Heineken sponsorship was involved) was also an unexpected treat; just hearing straight drum & bass at all was strangely refreshing (so close to a painful Heineken-based gag there…), but it was also an expertly constructed set, building from a lovely, languid start into something still ‘deep’ but harder-edged as the crowd grew larger and more enthusiastic. The night wound up with a quick peek at producer Toxic Avenger. His debut release ‘Angst’ comes over very Paris, milking the ‘ducking’/side chain compression for all it’s worth, but for the stage he’s got a live band who lumbered through some almost goth-tinged electro-rock numbers. Not very fetching, but by then it was too late to put a dampener on a largely flawless first day.
The next two days were quieter for French acts, but each had its standout. On Friday it was the first trip to La Cité, an atmospheric small theatre-sized venue nestling just off a quiet street in the old town, where the only down side was the lack of an alcohol licence. Instead, they opted to sell 'Beer Free' - alcohol free, a taste like merde. La Corda, a local trio with a singer/guitarist/harmonium player, Kate Fletcher (pictured below), who grew up in Chelmsford, Essex, were pretty perfect in this setting. Theirs is a particularly austere, skeletal brand of post-rock. It has seen them compared to Portishead (who they are fans of) but there's nothing trip hop-y here, it's the mood of 'Third' that they're closest to, if you imagine that album stripped of the analogue synths and more obviously looped beats, while the harmonium drones also add a witchy, Nico-esque quality. They opened by playing glasses while crouched beside a low table at the front of the stage. It was a move which was less gimmicky than it might sound - the séance-like intimacy and focus of the scene set the tone for the whole set.
Saturday's treat, meanwhile, were Caen's Manatee, who have released one very promising EP, 'Like a Small Animal', and were even better live, almost astonishingly so given that this was only their 11th gig or thereabouts. The mix of shoegazy guitars, tinkly keyboards and tribal drumming evoked, and sometimes induced, feelings of childlike euphoria, a sugar high - in fact, several young kids at the 4 Bis venue were seen to be enjoying mini wig-outs out. Singer/keyboard-player Charlotte's vocals sound more Scandinavian than French, and she occasionally used technology to pitch her already high, cutesy vocals even further upwards. For now, the first record might be too saccharine for some but Manatee are forging ahead at quite a clip - whatever they do next is going to be worth investigating.
As for the rest of Les Trans' international smorgasbord, Connan Mockasin was a highly accomplished, oddball treat, with a Todd Rundgren-esque sense of the absurd, and Gonjasufi live proved to be a strange but satisfying brew, somewhere between New Kingdom and Fishbone. Janelle Monae was accomplished, brilliant in her own way but the huge crate that is Hall 9 was too cold a setting for her dazzle, it didn't quite connect. MIA packed out the same hangar, to the point that I didn't get in to see it. Apparently the sound was dirty, brutal, "very English" according to one Frenchman I spoke to. Ava Luna put on a superb show that was lapped up by the audience, with a sound kind of like Dirty Projectors' last album if it was actually a bit... dirty. 
On the flipside, Salem lived up to their reputation as being a clunky live act - almost none of the murk and majesty of the album makes it to the stage on the basis of what we saw.
A quick word about the 'mysterious' Wu Lyf as well, who have built up mystique partly on the basis of keeping their live shows to a minimum. I can confirm that this has been a very wise strategy, as nothing is more likely to break the spell than actually experiencing them in the flesh - their highly derivative 'epic' rock, a singer sounding like he's doing a bad impression of Kings of Leon's Anthony Caleb Followill, none of it bore any resemblance to what's been written about them. I shall say no more and hope that no-one else will be saying anything about them either in a year or so.
As ever, though, you've got to treat Les Trans as a voyage of discovery - take the rough with the strange and the bloody brilliant, and you'll have a ball. I did.
David McKenna
All photos by David McKenna except where indicated.