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Restoring the Myth of French Romanticism Through Music

09/02/2011 03:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

Whatever else Dominique Strauss-Kahn did, he certainly screwed the American stereotype of sophisticated and suave French romance. Really, Dominique, on the wall?

But for those who want to bask in the idealized France where l'amour permeates the air like a soupçon of impossibly expensive perfume, there has been a small revival of music at the intersection of French popular music and jazz.

One recent CD is Amourettes from the Brooklyn-based group Les Chauds Lapins (or The Hot Rabbits), which does a wonderful job of channeling the ambiance of the smoky, jazz-enfused theaters, bars and dance halls of Paris in the first half of the 20th century.

The heart of the group is composed of Meg Reichardt, who previously was with an Americana group, and Kurt Hoffman, who had been a saxophonist in the art-rock group The Ordinaires. The pair's common ground is vastly different than their previous work, but they comfortably make it their own -- the music is nostalgic, but not simply a slavish copy.

They resurrect the clever, quirky songs of French songwriter Charles Trenet and the team of Mireille and Nohain. The group does tweak the style, using atypical instruments such as the little-seen banjo-uke. For those who don't understand French, the lyrics are thankfully translated, showing another facet of the songs' charm.

This collection of 13 songs has a sweet acoustic swing that is as welcome as it is rare. The intimate feel of the album invites you to lean in to listen to the singers' understated voices, the folksy plucking of the banjo-ukes and the flourishes of the small string section.

The pair barely needs to add modern irony to the source material. Yes, there are some exquisite expressions of love ("My heart is like a lovely Sunday, like a waltz in the branches under the beautiful sky of your beautiful blue eyes"). But the original writers had their own well-developed wry senses of humor, so that songs that sound to the non-French speaker like an "old-fashioned" paean to love are not quite that. On "C'est Arrive," the narrator says "it's arrived," meaning the inevitable moment when two lovers finally meet, but as the story progresses, "it's arrived" is applied to the first quarreling ("we throw the beef at each other's nose) and finally to the slamming of doors.

The ambience of the album is warmly celebratory, reveling in love and winking at its silliness too. The retro ambience is akin to watching a sweet old black-and-white movie that ends sappily, but still manages to tug at our modern, cliche-guarded hearts.

This intersection of French popular music and American jazz was most famously associated with the "Manouche jazz" of Django Reinhardt (who actually was born in a Gypsy caravan encampment in Belgium) and his Quintette du Hot Club de France in the 1930s.

A few other modern groups have successfully revived this distinctive, lively music. Paris Combo, with its charismatic vocalist Belle du Berry, led the way with several albums mixing French chanson and American swing among other influences, though the group has not been heard from stateside in several years (a new album and U.S. dates are apparently coming in several months).

The revivalists Les Primitifs Futur featured, of all people, cartoonist R. Crumb on its debut album, World Musette. Musette is an accordion-based genre introduced to France in the early 20th century by Italian immigrant farm workers and Les Primitifs revive it for a jaunty, but elegant sound that includes some lovely waltzes.

Also successfully touching on this small sub-genre is the San Francisco-based Rupa and the April Fishes, led by Rupa Marya, an American-born daughter of South Asian parents; and whose day job is doctoring in a Bay Area hospital. The April Fishes add a multi-culti, somewhat-wilder spirit to their French-jazz hybrid.

Approaching the intersection from the jazz side, New Jersey-native Stacey Kent released the wonderful all-French Raconte-Moi in 2010, applying her silky, beguiling voice to French standards and a few new tunes.

The criminal charges against DSK have been dropped and even Pepe Le Pew may have been tainted with the stink, but these thoroughly charming performers are proudly upholding the traditional illusion that romance still waits for us, sipping a soulful wine at an impossibly perfect corner boite along a quiet, cobblestone street in France.