Just as America is not comprised of only Nike-wearing, Coca-Cola-sipping McDonald’s lovers, France is more than French fries, berets, unshaved armpits, and the general theatrics of Les Miserables. On at least part of Fixation Orale, Les Sans Culottes evades the hackneyed Americanized view of all that is French, creating a charming blend of French pop and garage rock. But they cannot help but overdo the kitsch and characterization, and the album stumbles on its own tongue-in-cheek smugness.
Fixation Orale is not entirely a trip to EuroDisney, and in fact does quite well when the band uses French pop as a jumping-off point. “Allo Allo” is simple in its structure but staggering in its catchiness; one listen and you will be singing along in a language you don’t know. Jean Luc Retard and Celine Dijon’s male-female vocals, along with hand claps and circling organ, help to make “Allo Allo” one of the most irresistible songs I’ve heard all year.
Remaining true to French pop, both “Telephone Douche” and “La Radio” evoke a subtle blend of girl-group pop and garage rock while singing about the typical French themes of romantic love and longing, or so it sounds to my English ear. Les Sans Culottes shows just how powerful they can be as a band; they convey single and simple emotions without any reliance on diction. The band members have admitted to their superficial knowledge of French — the septet is based in Brooklyn — but on some tracks, such as “Poupee de Cire,” the band manages to erase any traces of a language barrier to the untrained ear. The song tumbles over itself as the guitar rages and the keyboard spews out a dizzying circle of notes, but the lyrics poured out sound completely natural and unstrained.
Still, I can’t help but feel offended at times. Tracks such as “Menage a Toi” doubt my intelligence as they play up trite French stereotypes. Most of the album’s French lyrics flow seamlessly and are secondary to the music, but it is hard to ignore them here; the entire song is sung in English except for the title, which is still sung in French. The song plays up one of the few French words an average American would know, supplanting cute with crude and coming off as horribly juvenile; “Menage a Toi” would seem more at home in one of Bush’s off-the-cuff jokes than coming from a band who counts Tristan Traza as an influence.
Peg me as a product of our hyper-politically correct world if you like, but there’s a difference between characterizing because it sounded funny at 3 a.m. when you were drunk and characterizing to make a point, a la Christopher Guest. Fixation Orale is not perfect. But by staying away from stale stereotypes and sticking with stubbornly catchy tunes for the majority of the album, Les Sans Culottes will keep the guillotine at bay.