And the stars, and the moon,
Have been keeping us together since June.
But the stars, and the moon,
Are getting bored of hearing I love you.
(The Stars, The Moon, The Sun and The Clouds)
The French are a band born out of the embers of Hefner, bedroom poets of love, lust, obsession, guilt and addiction. Hefner don't formally admit to having split, but musical differences seemed to lead to their disintegration in 2002, and the following year singer Darren Hayman and bassist John Morrison (and Darren's dog Beulah, the third member) revealed a new outlet for Hayman's lyric-writing. It's fair to say that The French are all about the lyrics, which are witty, tender, dispassionate, and closely-observed tales of city life and relationships; Hayman sings over a simple electronica backing track which has disappointingly little interest.
Their only album to date, Local Information, is frustrating. It starts really well, and by track four I was convinced this was a classic record. Then it totally runs out of steam: not only do the limitations of their music become horribly evident (and the insistent beeps horribly annoying), but the lyrics deteriorate in songs like The Pines which is about a girl with a swastika tattoo and tries to make some point about evil.
However, before then, you have four strong tracks which might make the album worthwhile if you can ensure your CD player explodes before track five. Porn Shoes is a witty tale of a man and a woman going on a date where she wears unexpected footwear
She wore gold shoes with diamante,
Like Kylie wore on TV,
They kept her feeling sexy,
They were what she always wanted.
But he thought they looked like porn shoes,
Like the porn stars wear in porn films...
With all its brand-name dropping and pop references, the song is more like Saint Etienne
than Hefner, and The French seems to echo a wider range of cultural references than Hayman has written about in the past.
The Wu-Tang Clan is maybe the stand-out track, a picture of urban alienation about a woman who lives and works in London, dodging unpleasant workmates and riding the tube home. But she is detached from this mundane life; her mind is far away, dreaming of American gangsta rap:
And in her mind she pictures ODB, in his prison cell alone,
It's not wrong to want to be alone, she would tell him so.
The next couple of songs on Local Information are good too, particularly When She Leaves Me
, about the way the world totally fails to stop if your heart is broken
. Most of the good songs are co-written with John Morrison, while the rest of the album is by Hayman alone. This suggests an obvious course of action.
Two of the later tracks, The Pines and Gabriel at the Airport, were originally performed live by Hefner, and the album in some ways reflects Hefner's later direction. I feel, and most Hefner fans seem to agree with me, that the band was great for the first couple of albums (Breaking God's Heart and The Fidelity Wars) in which the music was based around acoustic guitars, but later on they moved into a dodgy synth style sometimes reminiscent of Momus, which seemed to alienate most of their fans. Gabriel at the Airport is at least amusing, chiding do-gooder singer Peter Gabriel to stop worrying about the state of the world and charity and stuff, and just go home and spend time with his loved ones.
The band's other main recording is the Dagenham EP, the first (and so far only) entry in a planned series of releases named for Essex towns. Preceding Local Information by a month, it has the same faults, with interesting lyrics accompanied by tiresome electronic beeps and gurgles.
The band The French most resemble, or would like to resemble, is perhaps Pulp, with their brilliantly-observed songs, by turns compassionate and satirical. Sadly, without improving their music The French are never going to be on that level; nonetheless, there are moments when The French's suburban angst seems near-perfect.
One question remains: why call themselves "The French"? Hayman explained:
We think it's funny. I had the name a few years ago and wondered if I had the front to use it because it's 'The French' as opposed to 'La Francaise'. I think it says more about the English really...1
Dagenham, July 14, 2003, a limited edition EP, on the Too Pure label. Track listing: The Animals, Vanessa's Birthday, Living The Wrong Way, Anne and Bill, The Day the Aliens Came.
Local Information, August 11, 2003, album, on the Too Pure label. Track listing: Porn Shoes, The Wu-Tang Clan, The Stars, The Moon, The Sun and The Clouds, When She Leaves Me, Canada Water, The Day You Arrive, The Pines, Nestbuilding, Gabriel in the Airport, Let It Go.
Porn Shoes, September 15, 2003, single, on the Too Pure label. Track listing 7 inch: Porn Shoes, Gabriel in the Airport; CD single: Porn Shoes, Gabriel in the Airport, Punk Rock is Going to Die, Nasty and Mean.
Darren Hayman quoted in "The French Interview", Record Overplayed, 2003
The main reference for this write-up was the official The French website at http://www.thefrench.org/