Noir Désir: Soyons Désinvoltes, N'Ayons L'Air De Rien
Some music from France is possible to assimilate, but non-native ears still have problems figuring out where the appeal lies. It’s not because the music is an unfamiliar style or genre. It’s not even because it’s bad or good. It’s because it’s too close to the familiar and too close to things that don’t seem worth reheating. A few years ago, with the Paris Calling comp and Paris’s baby rockers it was possible to figure out why then-current obsessions The Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Libertines were chucked in a blender and served up anew. But a trawl though this handsome, slipcased 2CD/DVD best-of package of Noir Désir underlines that they’re a classic case of having to have grown up with it.
Of course, there’s another inescapable pall that Noir Désir can’t escape. Frontman and main songwriter Bertrand Cantat was jailed in 2004 after the death of his girlfriend, the actor Marie Trintignant. She was filming in Lithuania in July 2003, and while there together the pair had an argument. The blows he inflicted resulted in her death five days after the argument. Initially, he was incarcerated in a Lithuanian jail but then transferred to one in France. He was released on parole in 2007. The band got back together in 2008, but folded after fellow founder member Serge Teyssot-Gay left in 2010, citing differences with Cantat as the reason.
The band had formed in Bordeaux in 1980, and first made a mark in 1987 wit their debut release, the mini album Où veux-tu qu'je r'garde? Soyons désinvoltes, n'ayons l'air de rien cherry picks tracks from across their six-albums, with a cut-off date of 2001, when their last album Des visages des figures was issued.
For a band that issued this amount of material over 14 years, the most striking thing – to a non-French person anyway – about the tracklist is how equivocal it is. Nine cover versions are included: two apiece by Bashung and the Beatles, one from John Lennon, King Crimson, Brel, Ferré and Brassens. Elsewhere, there are collaborations with Manu Chao, Têtes Raides, Brigitte Fontaine, Bashung and Yann Tiersen. Most charitably interpreted, the inclusion of all this extra-curricular material on a 36-track set gives Noir Désir a context, pointing out what they might have drawn from. Maybe, but that all falls down when confronted with the music. Whatever their moments of subtlety or nods towards folk, Noir Désir are a meat-and-potatoes, big-gesture rock band in love with anthemic choruses and grinding out a riff. Nirvana and Led Zeppelin obviously had a big effect on them. “L’homme pressé” is a “Trampled Underfoot” rewrite. “Tostaky (le continent)” is a Nevermind patchwork quilt, and Nirvana touches are never far.
"Aux sombres héros de l'amer", the early hit, is more interesting - a stadium-tooled slab of repetitive folk rock: a sing-along hinging on the metaphorical line “always lost in the sea” (sung in English). Watching their veins swell in video after video on the DVD doesn’t reveal where the appeal lay. It’s all quotidian stuff. You had to have been there to get anything from this, which makes the reasons for the British release of this comp a mystery.