PRINT November 1995


Dominique A.

IN 1992, THE INDIE French label Lithium launched its third record, the debut album by a young singer from Nantes named Dominique A., to a sudden, unexpected succès fou. La Fossette (The dimple), a low-fi, tremulous, and disquieting homemade CD, was filled with melancholic little tunes tapped out on a Yamaha keyboard and a Caslo VL Tone, accompanied by the occasional electric-guitar riff. The album’s relation to the French tradition of singer-songwriters was like that of turpentine to varnish: Dominique A.’s peculiar combination of sentimentality and acidity is reminiscent of Beck’s flaunting of American rock with his quirky compendium of blues, folk, and punk and P. J. Harvey’s irascible, dry reworking of blues and Irish folk music. But perhaps his most direct influence is the country-folk pastiche of Palace’s Will Oldham, whose voice Dominique A. has described as a “vocal organ without a body.” Dominique A.’s signature singing style, which sounds something like a dissatisfied sparrow whispering melodic refrains of self-hatred, gave French music a new raison d’être, seemingly from out of the blue. On La Mémoire Vive (Memory live), his recently released third album, Dominique A. trades in his cheap drum machines for loose, elegant arrangements that give his tunes the sadness of a broader melodic surface but maintain their intimate fragility. He steadfastly resists assimilation into the French pop mainstream: “The ‘new French songwriting’ has never been my cup of tea. . . . The French songwriting thing is kind of trite, . . . even the things that aren’t particularly embarrassing.”

In the wake of Dominique A.’s success, Paris-based Lithium has signed more artists and established a “singles club” to showcase emerging groups and singers (Rodéo, Pulse, Acapulco Laps) that transcend the conception of French pop as offering nothing more interesting than the saccharine stylings of Françoise Hardy. The eclectic label, now in partnership with Virgin France, recently released CDs by Perlo, a Franco-American duo whose pop roots are tinged with Left Bank (read chic neoexistentialist) accents, and Diabologum (L’art est dans la rue [Art is in the streets]), a Parisian band that sounds like an offshoot of Ween or King Missile. Diabologum, whose experimental-jet-set rock samples, manipulates, and punctuates genres from punk to power pop, is the best of what made-in-France melody has to offer. Lithium has also released a beautiful solo album by Diabologum’s lead singer, Peter Parker. Recording (appropriately enough) under the name the Peter Parker Experience, he mines the same intimate vein first explored by Dominique A.—decidedly the older-brother figure on the scene.

Olivier Zahm is editor of Purple Prose.

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.