M1-14 Joseph Racaille

M1-14 Week-end

Clocking in at a full 14 seconds, Joseph Racaille out-miniatured the miniaturists with this lovely haiku of a song. Although before I continue, I feel compelled to draw your attention to fellow miniaturist Lol Coxhill’s one-second piece, “Spirit of Maasluis” on his wonderful album “Toverbal Sweet.” If memory serves me correctly (sadly I no longer have the LP) it sounded like a tiny snippet of audience noise. Amazing how the merest fragment of audio can give such an accurate and vivid aural impression. Our brains can work fast when they want to.

Although my French is quite good, I have no idea what Joseph (for I believe it is his voice, multi-tracked) is singing on this track, except perhaps for the final two words which may possibly be “La Manche” which, as any good British schoolboy knows, is French for “The English Channel” across which Joseph’s tape winged (or ferried?) its way to me in 1980. If anyone French or French-savvy (pardon for bastardising savoir) can decipher these lyrics for me, please write in! I have not, despite many efforts, been able to reach Joseph since those days.

I met him only once in a classic all-stone, plaster, wood and wrought iron 5th-floor walk-up Paris apartment in 1980, and after a brief bonjour, enchanté he seemed dreamily incommunicable, and we spoke no more. I passed the rest of my visit with the more outgoing, debonair, cosmopolitan half of his two-man band,  ZNR.

Yet it was Joseph’s hazy, abstract air that first attracted me to ZNR’s album “Traité de Mécanique Populaire” which he recorded with his more articulate friend Hector Zazou (who also is on Miniatures – more of that in a later post) and released in 1980. I can still only guess that ZNR may stand for Zazou’N’Racaille, a bit like R’n’R. Peut-être. I am not the only one to note the chalk-and-cheese difference in character between these two musical mavericks: the previous link leads to a review that ends thus: Zazou later went on to become a much sought after producer and composer of more mainstream/ambient music while Racaille is successful in keeping a low profile.

This youtube video of “Tout Debout” (audio only) from “Traité” shows that they were already partial to creating very short tracks, with the mood a captivating blend of, well let’s say, Satie and Faust. A sad, elegant refinement combined with the occasional slightly raucous rebellious attack, possibly tongue-in-cheek. Very French and very appealing to me at the time. For younger viewers, this spirit may still be detected in, for example, the soundtrack of the film “Amélie.” Also comparable to fellow Miniaturists across the Channel, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (not least because the ukelele is a favoured instrument of both Joseph and the late PCO leader Simon Jeffes).

ZNR’s first album came to my attention a little later, in 1981. It was called “Barricade 3” – why “3” for a debut album, which furthermore was not made by a trio? To quote from this fine review – “Back in 1977, this album didn’t have its match when it came to weirdness. With age it remains an unusual attempt at accessible avant-garde art, French style, and a very entertaining listen for anyone interested in music that is left of center. One could even argue it predated by two decades the naïve pop current represented by Stereolab and Felix Kubin.”

Joseph is credited on both the ZNR albums for piano, vocals, electric piano, violin. He was always more acoustically-minded, and while “Barricade 3” also featured synths by Hector and another supporting player, their second album was more acoustic, and for his Miniature, Joseph dispensed with instruments all together and made an a cappella track.

As for his own releases, these are tricky to to track down. Here’s what I found:

Two 1983 releases (an album with Miniatures artist Patrick Portella on wind instruments, plus an EP) from Recommended Records – now only available used via eBay, etc.

A 1985 track on a Recommended Records Quarterly issue. Via this link I learned that Joseph was part of the Ukulele Club de Paris and played in Primitive Future with cartoonist Robert Crumb.

A 2010 compilation album featuring 6 miniatures by Joseph, as well as another Miniatures artist, Etron Fou Leloublan. The title means “Songs Never Heard On The Radio.”

Amazon in the the UK shows a few more releases, including a series of three albums entitled (1) Racaille à Hawaii, (2) ¡Caraï! and (3) Signé.  A theatre project called Triton merited a Warner release in 1999.

Amazon France shows about the same as in the UK, but with more information and numerous listenable excerpts. Possibly the best source of snippets of JR’s work. Here we can learn (using Google translate if French is not your forte) that the previously mentioned series of albums form a trilogy called “Les Beaux Albums de Joseph Racaille;” that he sings in French, English, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Javanese and Alamawak (?!) and that all three albums (mini-albums actually) are “une bonne surprise!”

(slight digression) Joseph also arranged this song (among others) for the Serge Gainsbourg-influenced French singer Arthur H, who sang a wonderful song at the end of the movie “Vigo – a Passion for Life” directed by Julien Temple.

Not so prolific in terms of releases then, but evidently Joseph, a shy yet genial man with a full head of greying hair and Hawaiian shirt (and lets give a nod here to kindred spirit Van Dyke Parks) does keep plugging away modestly, arranging his intimate yet enigmatic chamber music for the odd theatre production, cafe-concert or collaborative recording. I leave you with a youtube search link which today shows 45 videos – but that will change, morph, expand and contract in an ephemeral way – much like Joseph’s music does…

Next up: the work play…

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