Aksak Maboul were sort of an "odd man out" among the original RIO bands, caught somewhere in between the more humorous faction (Etron Fou Leloublan) and the darker, more serious groups (Univers Zero). The excellent first track of Un Peu de l'Âme des Bandits, "A Modern Lesson," is a perfect midpoint: groovy, catchy, spiky, witty, and un-self-consciously modernistic. In the first half, a beautifully ugly, muddy-sounding groove is established as an underpinning for Catherine Jauniaux's hysterical gibberish vocals (somewhere in between Kukl-era Björk and Yoko Ono) and Marc Hollander's writhing saxophone flourishes. In the second half, the chamber element comes to the fore: Fred Frith's bowed strings, Michel Berckmans' reeds and Hollander's keyboards play short fragments that fit together to produce long, elaborately convoluted, jumpy lines that somehow can stick in your head for days. And somewhere underneath the playful experimentation and subtle wit is an elegant charm that strikes me as extremely French. This was the first Aksak Maboul piece I heard, and it made a big impression.
Unfortunately, after that it's downhill for the rest of side one. This is not to say that any of the album is bad -- in fact, it's pretty enjoyable -- but the next four songs lack what it takes to be truly great. "Palmiers en Pots" is a bit of out-of-tune Polish lounge music and a tango created out of scraps of existing tangos: interesting and fun, but hardly mind-blowing. Frith's "Gestige Nacht" starts out as a nice driving piece with syncopated saxes and clunking drums, but it seems to lose steam a bit, and the avant-jazz sax solo in the middle seems kind of pointless. "I Viaggi Formano la Gioventú," Aksak Maboul's arrangement of a Turkish folk song, just goes on a bit too long, although it does contain some absolutely delicious synthesizers. And "Inoculating Rabies," while it deserves some credit for being the only piece of music ever recorded that can accurately be referred to as "angry bassoon punk," is just too shrill to listen to without getting a migraine.
Ah, but then there's "Cinema"! This could be one of the best album sides in the history of rock music. If you can call it rock music, that is -- at times it sounds more like contemporary chamber music than anything else. Whatever you call it, it's certainly a great moment for RIO. In a way, it epitomizes everything great about the movement, from its meticulous construction to its passages of freewheeling improvisation to its experimentation with tone color. The sound is very similar to Henry Cow's Western Culture, but less gloomy and somewhat less single-minded. There are dissonant woodwind passages, atonal psychedelic rock-outs, and snatches of Middle Eastern music. In one very strange and very beautiful passage, a piano quietly repeats the same French-sounding, slightly angular motif while a man, presumably Marc Hollander, occasionally gasps in wonder. Another section consists mostly of primitive synthesizer whistles, accompanied by scraps of tuned percussion and sul ponticello violin scrapes. The piece ends with a section subtitled "Radio Sofia," which seems to be an attempt to imitate a Bulgarian talk show. But what really makes "Cinema" great is not the variety of material used, but how deliciously /right/ it feels. There is an incredible economy of material here, so that nearly everything in the piece is somehow related to something else. Motifs are manipulated and recombined in ways that keep the listener in a constant state of half-recognition. The piece is simply brilliant, and more than makes up for the shortcomings of the first side of the album. Simply put, anyone with any interest in RIO or 20th century classical music has to hear thisUn Peu de l'Ame des Bandits
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