Andrew Savage lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn with his cat Frida. He operates the record label Dull Tools and is a member of Parquet Courts.
For the uninitiated, allow me to give you a primer, as best I can, for the French group known as Cheveu. Cheveu, which is French for “hair” (singular), have been relatively embraced by a small circle of the American weirdo underground. They’ve been released in the U.S. by both S-S and Permanent Records, which makes them labelmates with likeminded fringe-punks A-Frames, Purling Hiss and Nothing People. They’ve toured and released a split seven-inch with Tyvek, and when I saw them play at Death by Audio in Brooklyn, they shared a bill with Australian garage-pop band Royal Headache. Yet the three Frenchmen who are Cheveu — David Lemoîne, Étienne Nicolas and Oliver Demeaux — have a certain je ne sais quoi that gets lost in translation when placed next to their American brethren.
Stylistically, the band owes a considerable debt to the synth-punk of yore: post-punk-era bands such as Metal Urbain, Screamers and even Chrome can be heard in the grating mechanics of Cheveu’s self-titled 2008 debut. Early Cheveu can be characterized as a wall of shrill industrial noise, with individual instrumentation woven into an indistinguishable textural blanket, atop which Lemoîne delivers a bilingual onslaught of absurdity, focusing on the banal and mundane. Yes, in many ways Cheveu have cast themselves as a punk band. But their aggressive eccentricity suggests a place in the canon of weirdos who transcend classification, alongside bands like Devo, Captain Beefheart and the Red Krayola. The release of their third album, 2010’s 1000, kept listeners on their toes with the addition of chamber strings, IDM beats and a bizarre reinterpretation of traditional pop motifs.
Cheveu has always been a band that demands patience from their audience, and on Bum, the trio’s fourth installment, they have never been more insistent. Things start off familiarly enough: “Pirate Bay” might be one of their catchiest songs. Here, all the elements of a great Cheveu song are present: a poppy chorus broken up by spoken stanzas, delivered over shrill bursts of strings, followed by a bridge of clarinet and reverbed guitar that sounds not unlike ’70s TV muzak. It’s easy and breezy, and does a fine job of seducing the listener into attention. But, in typical Cheveu fashion, things get a bit stranger from there. “Slap and Shot,” despite the soft backing vocals that imply catchiness, isn’t a tune that one walks away whistling. “Slap and shot/hey hey hey”; the melodic chorus is a bit unsettling when juxtaposed with the industrial grime of the song’s verses.
“Polonia,” a curious choice for the album’s first single, is where Bum truly starts to take its shape. The accompanying music video, which places Lemoîne, Nicolas and Demeaux in a Palmer Eldritch-style Mars capsule, cuts nature scene b-roll and a wall of CGI human backup singers between clips of the band playing a cutthroat fighting game, using holograms of their likeness, all the while performing in orange robes which bear the band’s logo. The song has an odd balance of placidity that abruptly rises to spectacular and melodramatic crescendos, yet, for all its moodiness, “Polonia” expertly explores the band’s fascination with pop music that began on 1000.
Bum is frequently punctuated by dissonant moments, like the refrain on “Stadium” which beckons: “Please yourself and do it every day/Please yourself and do it every way,” or the guttural growls found on “Madame Pompidou.” It is here where the band’s quirks might come off as tedious. But it’s songs like the melodic album closer “Johnny Hurry Up” where Cheveu disarm any previous tension with a poppy whimsy that ultimately defines the spirit of the album.
Let’s face it, when it takes itself too seriously, the avant garde can be such a bore. But Cheveu always counters their peculiar aggression with a wry sense of humor that never stumbles into kitsch. Ever the culture buffs, they have previously lifted a monologue from Todd Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness, as well as stanzas from Arthur Rimbaud and Jacques Prévert. This time, Harmony Korine gets a sinister homage via “Albinos,” where the main riff self-references the band’s own earlier tribute to Vanilla Ice. (See their cover of “Ice Ice Baby” on 1000.) Celebrating brows both high and low, the Frenchmen have a talent for finding new depth in familiar cultural territory. Even the aforementioned “Polonia” clip recreates a scene from Bertrand Blier’s 1979 cult film Buffet Froid. “Juan in a Million,” which explores nearly every variant of pun for the name Juan, prevents the band from being branded as sophisticates. Beginning with spy film-style guitar and ending with a commercial-jingle piano outro, “Juan…” uses one of the best weapons in Cheveu’s arsenal: a playful stupidity that belies and affirms their acute wit.
This is not the first Cheveu album I would recommend to a new listener — there’s too much of a narrative built up by this point, and some of the record’s more erratic passages might leave one scratching one’s head. But perhaps that is the nature of Cheveu: to leave us with a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, puzzled but hungry for more. Truth be told, I’m not sure how I would recommend Cheveu to the unacquainted. There are moments on this record that initially struck me as extremely off-putting and unlistenable, only to have them evolve into something daring and brilliant. So much of rock music today is crippled by conformity and predictability; it’s refreshing to be reminded that the medium still has new places to explore. Those ready for the expedition will find Bum to be a great, if flawed, masterpiece.