Album Review: La Femme – Psycho Tropical Berlin

[Barclay; 2013]

The members of La Femme are from Biarritz, a beach resort town in France. But even if you weren’t aware of this biographical detail before listening to their debut LP, opener “Antitaxi” would make this abundantly clear, what with its shouted French lyrics, surf shack guitars, and wheezing organ drones. Right from the start, this band lays all its cards on the table.

And that table was built by Stereolab. The comparison is almost too easy to make, especially once we hear Brittany-based singer Clémence take over lead vocal duties on “Amour Dans le Motu,” which also features a hauntingly sampled flute, in case it wasn’t clear we’re dealing with some neo-psychedelia here. Like Stereolab, La Femme build atmospheres that are unabashedly nostalgic for 60s lounge pop and 70s kraut dalliances, melodies that bloom with singsongy straightforwardness, and songs that feel like throwbacks without simply rehashing past cliches or tired tropes. It’s a deft balancing act these bands pull off: without necessarily trying to sound original, they nonetheless take these established sounds and make them their own.

Like, the snarling guitars of tracks like “Interlude” are dripping with the sorts of guitar riffs one would expect to hear on a “day trip to the shore” episode of any given sitcom. But the way they interact with both the music’s harmonic structures and their bubbling electronics keep the proceedings reassuringly far from parody or lazy cultural appropriation. So “Hypsoline” somehow manages to be a bass-heavy post-punk tribute (complete with nonchalantly spoken lyrics), surf-and-turf reverbed guitar jam, and stately synthpop exercise all at once. The latter feature carries over into the following track, “Sur la planche 2013,” a giddy new wave number bolstered by those ever-present guitar riffs. The biggest difference between the way La Femme approach this sound and, say, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is that La Femme seem more willing to embrace a certain kitsch aesthetic, taking Stereolab’s poignant melodies and giving them a B-52s-esque glossy sheen. (Not to mention that album cover, which might come across as obnoxious or trying-too-hard-to-be-wacky if it weren’t an apt summation of the band’s sound.) Psycho Tropical Berlin is above all a fun listen; that’s not to say Stereolab’s music isn’t fun, of course, but even on the slower songs, La Femme are making music for parties and weekend getaways.

And you know what? That’s fine. In fact, it’s more than fine: it’s practically irresistible. Here’s an album that’s as fun to listen to as it must have been to record, and it doesn’t ask for anything more from the listener than a spare hour and a willingness to happily nod along. I think there’s sometimes a tendency among music critics to be suspicious of surface-level interaction; good music, you see, has to have a deeper meaning or grander purpose. There is no deeper meaning to Psycho Tropical Berlin besides having a good time. Even when they’re warning us that “yellow fever is waiting for you,” which they do on “Nous etions deux,” they make it sound enticing and even a bit glamorous. Best of all, band keeps their pop tight and to-the-point; there’s little ambient meandering or post-rock languor here. “Saisis la Corde,” for instance, erupts from a sparse intro of (more) organ drones and a heartbeat-like bassline into a delightfully 8-bit slice of chugging pop rock. Halfway through, it suddenly switches gears and heads towards a demented, Commodore-64-carnival dream, like something the Fiery Furnaces circa Blueberry Boat might have whipped up after spending a few weeks with the characters from Tender Is The Night. The original rhythm gradually returns, and by track’s end we’ve been swept up in an airy, suntanned denouement of chunky keys and the ticking of a clock, which to my ears sounds not like it’s counting down not to an end to the good vibrations but rather like, well, an interesting noise to be taken advantage of.

Meanwhile, “Le Blues de Francoise” is happily spooky, like Casper the Ghost spending a Weekend at Bernie’s; “Si un jour,” on the other hand, take that Stereolab organ drone and pair it with new wave synths and a bouncy, uptempo rhythm that belies Clémence’s lyrics lamenting the restrictive gender roles she learned from her father. She wants to abandon her Moulinex (a French household appliances maker, presumably favored by housewives and homemakers) in favor of spitting, smoking, and wearing pants like one of the guys. This could’ve been a heavy-handed exercise in Music With A Message, but fortunately for everyone involved, La Femme are smarter than that. It’s not that their music can’t make you think; they’d just rather make you dance.

So, La Femme are smart enough to know what they’re doing, experienced enough listeners to wear their many influences on what I’d call their sleeves if I thought they were wearing any–really now, who wears sleeves on the beach?–and savvy enough to craft delicious pop songs that explore a variety of sounds and themes but never wear out their welcome. That’s another nice thing about their party; they know when to end it, because they know we’ll be back. I want La Femme to be the house band for my future kid’s Bar Mitzvah, and as long as you understand why that’s a compliment, you should greatly enjoy Psycho Tropical Berlin.