Alain Bashung is lauded as one of France's most notable, iconoclastic modern rockers, but I gotta say most of his stuff doesn't do much for me...The dark, Goth-y, often formless synth-rock of his early albums is the sort of stuff that attracts cultish fans (and, apparently, a mainstream following... in France), but it ain't my cup of tea. Anyway, I had a couple of readers write to recommend his work to me, so I did check it out, and am passing along a few impressions to the rest of y'all.
Bashung recorded for over a decade before releasing his first full-length LP -- from 1966-'71, he recorded nearly a dozen 45rpm EPs for the Philips label, then bounced between several labels (and a few assumed names) before recording his first full album, in 1977. Bashung made his name as a leading light in France's nascent "new wave" scene and while he had commercial success with a number of singles, much of his music seems calculatedly anti-commercial. Again, it's not my cup of tea, but I can (sort of) see what the appeal is... So here's a look at his work...
Alain Bashung "Roman Photos" (Barclay, 1977)
Alain Bashung "Roulette Russe" (Philips/Barclay, 1979)
The comparison to Roxy Music holds true on this album as well, with several sleek, seamlessly eclectic, urbane pop songs, as well as dips into various styles, including blues, jazz and a dash of country-rock. I didn't feel particularly wowed or moved by any of these songs, but i could still hear how Bashung had elevated himself above the commonplace (and rather dreary) French pop vocals scene. While still a bit on the too-perfect side, these songs also show him in touch with a broader set of more external influences, with a hint of punk and New Wave in there as well (and an interesting similarity to Mark Knopfler at times!) It's not really as fun as it should be, but this is certainly worth checking out if you want to delve into the commercial end of the French rock scene.
Alain Bashung "Pizza" (Philips/Barclay, 1981)
Although this album also has interesting (and more explicit) connections to the American and British "new wave" scene, it's also far more monochromatic and less engaging due to the lack of stylistic variety. Every song sounds like a Dire Straits song, with wry, world-weary muttering and laid-back guitar noodling, set to a moderate beat. Objectively speaking, it's a kinda cool, but a little bit goes a long way. Includes the hit single, "Gaby Oh Gaby," which really put him on the map as a commercial rock star.
Alain Bashung "Play Blessures" (Philips/Barclay, 1982)
More overtly Goth and new wave-y... and kind of dreary and downbeat, if you ask me. The album art looks all Wall Of Voodoo, but the music is closer to The Birthday Party or Joy Division... just not as dynamic or compelling. I mean, if you're into this kind of stuff, hearing someone singing it in French may come as a revelation, but if you didn't like it in English (raise your hands, everyone!) then the novelty of a Gallic version won't make it sound any better. Some interesting production touches, all appropriate to the era, but nothing that caught my fancy.
Alain Bashung "Figure Imposse" (Philips/Barclay, 1983)
This opens with the exuberant, bilingual "What's In A Bird," a bouncy, hook-laden tune that makes the most of the giddy dorkiness of contemporary new wave/synthpop production, as does the later "Poisson D'Avril." On several tracks Bashung's vocals are notably Bowie-esque, and a musical debt is obvious as well. Some songs, however, are rather strained and taxing (notably the interminable, irritating "Imbecile"), but I suppose that goes with the aesthetic of the times; Bashung clearly aimed at being seen as a serious artist, and not just a pop idol. Thus, there's anticommercialism and a gloomy, dreary, monotonous Goth-iness at work here; if you like the more cerebral, less dance-y side of '80s bands such as New Order, or The Birthday Party, et. al., you might want to check this album out... But I found myself rolling my eyes after a while. Some fun stuff, but also a lot of tedium and wankery.
Alain Bashung "Live Tour '85" (Philips/Barclay, 1985)
A tacky-sounding (but rather professional) concert, showcasing what was undoubtedly some of the best "new wave" rock that France had to offer at the time... This live set sticks to a more commercial style than Bashung's studio albums, and includes many hit singles, although songs like "What's In A Bird" lose something without the clever studio arrangements -- live, it just sounds like someone banging away at a so-so song. And, gawd -- his vocals. How much anguished screaming do we really want to hear? Spare me.
Alain Bashung "Passe Le Rio Grande" (Barclay, 1986)
A horrid album, with Bashung dressed on the cover as a Boy George lookalike (or, if you prefer, as an Argentinian gaucho), although there is one interesting song. This synth-pop set could almost be described as an album's worth of French-language remakes of the theme from Ghostbusters, but it isn't even that good. Not that Bashung isn't trying: other than his still-bellowing vocals, the dark artiness of his earlier albums is almost entirely vanished, and a slicker, more forceful commercialism is in its place, replete with bashing, echo-y drums and dull synth'n'rhythm rock riffs. The one song that breaks out of this pattern, "Malediction," is a more textured, country-flavored song, with Bashung actually doing a bit of crooning, amid a subtle, pedal-steel arrangement. That song's okay, the rest really sucks.
Alain Bashung "Novice" (Barclay, 1989)
Actually, this ain't bad. I mean, it's still the kind of synthy pop I that I don't particularly care for, but it's much better done that on his earlier albums, more subtle and less harsh-sounding. The sequenced, mechanical drums are still a drag, but his vocals are softer and less grating... heck, he even seems to be phrasing his lyrics and imbuing them with some nuance. More important, the synths and keyboards are consistently interesting, with textures, depth and variety that come out in every song. There just seems to be a lot more going on this disc than on the albums that precede it... If any of his other albums interested you, then this one is definitely worth checking out.
Alain Bashung "Tour Novice" (Barclay, 1992)
This album consists of live tracks recorded between 1987-1990, and was released as part of the Bashung box set (listed below). It's actually pretty good, or at least I would say that it's one of the best, least irritating Bashung albums I've heard. He sounds confident and strong, and far less theatrical or pretentious than on his earlier albums, where -- I guess -- he felt he had more to prove. This is a pretty straightforward set of modern stadium rock, where the songs come through clearer, as there's less showiness and wankery in the way. If you see it released as a separate album, it might be worth picking up; I'm not sure I'd pick up the box set just to get this material, though.
Alain Bashung "Reserve Aux Indiens" (Barclay, 1992)
This disc includes studio outtakes and instrumental pieces composed for various film soundtracks... The opening tracks are dark, forboding, synthy instrumentals, with a vaguely Eno-esque feel. They are interesting in comparison to his more abrasive pop recordings, but also underscore the clumsiness of his compositional approach. Next come some smoky jazz ballads, in which Bashung's rambling, muttering delivery calls to mind Nina Simone's classic work. The outtakes include an English-language cover of the old Elvis Presley hit, "That's Alright, Mama," in which Bashung indulges a Johnny Hallyday-style proclivity towards a Memphis-y Southern drawl, along with a tweaky, Nick Cave-ish distortion of "Silent Night," then it's back to the synthy stuff. He shows a fair amount of diversity here, just nothing much that I'd care to revisit. [Released as part of the Bashung box set (listed below).]
Alain Bashung "Chatterton" (Barclay, 1994)
Alain Bashung "Confessions Publiques" (Barclay, 1996)
Alain Bashung "Osez Josephine" (Barclay, 1998)
Alain Bashung "Fantasie Militaire" (Barclay, 1998)
Alain Bashung "L'Imprudence" (Universal, 2003)
A 2-CD set.
Alain Bashung "La Tournee Des Grands Espaces" (Universal, 2004)
Alain Bashung "Osez Josephine/Fantaisie Militaire/L'Imprudence" (Universal-Barclay, 2006)
A 3-CD "bricked" reissue of three of Bashung's later albums.
Alain Bashung "Alain Bashung (Box Set)" (Barclay, 1993)
This 9-CD box set contains straight reissues of Bashung's releases on the Barclay label, starting with 1977's Roulette Russe, as well as Pizza (1981), "Play Blessures" (1982), "Figure Imposse" (1983), "Live Tour '85" (1985), "Passe Le Rio Grande" (1986), "Novice" (1989), plus two bonus discs, "Tour Novice" (1992), and "Reserve Aux Indiens" (1992). This gives a pretty good picture of his career, from his early new wave-ish albums to mainstream, stadium rock success and all the wanky goth/haircut band stuff in between; too bad his previous work from the 'Sixties and early 'Seventies seems to be still out of print, but this set collects his prime hitmaking material. See individual album reviews above.
Alain Bashung "Master Serie" (PolyGram, 1998)
This single-disc collection is a much more compact, and perhaps more rewarding encapsulation of the same material as the massive box set... Way more affordable, too!
Alain Bashung "Compilation Osez Jospehine" (PolyGram, 1998)
Alain Bashung "Climax" (Universal, 2000)
A 38-song best-of set that follows Bashung up to the end of the '90s...
Alain Bashung "Les 50 Plus Belles Chansons" (Universal, 2007)
A 3-CD best-of set...
French Music Index
French Rock Albums