Magazine Culture

Dear America, Love Quebec: Karkwa

Publié le 07 juillet 2011 par Gabnews
Dear America, Love Quebec: KarkwaWhile the depressing majority of French Québec’s rock scene still is firmly rooted in guitar-heavy 80’s power rock and radio friendly pop-folk, Karkwa, winner of the 2010 Polaris Music Prize, most definitely isn’t. This quintet composed of Louis-Jean Cormier (Vocals, Guitar), Stéphane Bergeron (Drums), François Lafontaine (keyboards), Martin Lamontagne (Bass) and Julien Sagot (Percussions, Vocals), has been tearing up the indie music scene in Québec. Since they formed in 1998, the band has put out four full-length albums, culminating with 2010’s Les chemins de verre (The glass paths). While all have been solid, this is clearly their most accomplished work.
In all four albums Cormier’s voice and lyrics are truly the band’s drawing point. His voice, always bordering on the sublime, must be discovered. His is a soft voice that can climb high in a scream and break you down in a whisper, that channels anguish, love, and everything else like so few can. His poetic lyrics are the perfect complement to this dramatic singer’s voice. Lafontaine’s classically trained mastery of the keyboards also brings much to Karkwa’s dark ambiances. By that same light, when called upon in specific songs, both Lamontagne and Bergeron manage this same feat, but the band’s compositions rarely allow them to come to the forefront.
That said, Julien Sagot is the band’s ace in the hole. Indeed, simply describing him as a percussionist is an understatement. Out of various beats and his own voice, Sagot weaves ambiances, sonic environments which play a large part in most of Karkwa’s truly groundbreaking tracks. His coarse whispery voice adds texture either when used by itself or as backing vocals, taking us away from Cormier’s more classic tones. Watching live as he rips high-pitched screams from tortured cymbals reveals the source of many of the bands more intriguing notes. Where many would consider him to be a depth player, his textures and compositions are those that take Karkwa the farthest off the tracks.
Coming after the frequently good but ultimately unequal 2008 release, Le volume du vent, Les chemins de verre, released in March 2010, is their most impressive work, musically and lyrically. Karkwa was always an inventive band, one that has tried to experiment as much as possible within the confines of their alt-rock music slot. Their musical choices are frequently audacious, including collaborations with non-traditional artists such as Brigitte Fontaine, author, poet, and rarely singer, on their 2005 record, Les tremblements s’immobilisent. But, for all the promise shown by the first track of Le volume du vent, the astonishing “Le compteur,” the rest of the album left something to be desired. It lacked the coherence of its 2005 counterpart, and see-sawed between the wondrous and the mundane, but the volume still pushed Karkwa out of a certain comfort zone. It was a “growth” album, one where the growth marks are only too apparent. Still, “Le compteur” is their best song as of yet. Live, its strength will literally make your heart burst.
Les chemins de verre is clearly the result of that growth. It is a sometimes uneven album, as it also suffers from clear breaks, veering towards a very radio-friendly sound, but nevertheless pushing further away from the mainstream than they have before on other tracks. As such, the album must necessarily be broken apart to be analysed.
The more experimental tracks, such as “Dors dans mon sang” and “La piqûre,” are the most interesting pieces. Deceptively simple, “Dors dans mon sang” (Sleep in my blood), makes it clear why the simpler folk-rock pieces of this album are so out of place. The Baudelaireian lyrics, weakly mumbled here by Cormier, sound almost like an entr’acte, and are a break in the album’s tone. The piece’s deliberate slowness, and the increasing distortion, lead to a beautiful climax where keyboards, feedback and voice mesh, then die out. “La piqûre” (The injection) starts with these three layered voices, frantic pianos, and percussions, while we hear of this “sting,” this piqûre, of this inability to feel pain, until we come to this beautiful drum, percussion and piano crescendo, unsung but nevertheless forming the chorus core of this song. Likewise, Sagot’s “Au-dessus de la tête de Lilijune” (Above Lilijune’s head) describes with his echoing voice a strip club filled with muzzled hyenas, its surfaces smelling of cum and metal and the “precise gestures” that lead Lilijune to get her skin covered in botox.
While not as challenging as these three songs, the core of Les chemins de verre remains solid. Tracks such as “Pyromane” (Pyromaniac) and “Moi-léger” (A lighter version of me), while more traditional-sounding, do the job well. They’re well-written, well-played. More audacious choices are made with “L’acouphène” (Tinnitus), which starts with bare-bones drumsticks and Cormier’s voice, or with “Le bon sens’s” (The good sense (also used as The right way)) deceptively powerful yet slow chorus and crescendo, to say nothing of the title track’s sheer on/again, off/again energy.
“28 jours” (28 days), a landmark track, is all about intensity. Sung about a loved one’s coma, Cormier’s voice brings out the remembrances of the way that body, which now is still, moved. It tells us of a time where that now-still hand brushed the back of his neck. These are the haunting lyrics of one who begs for this astronaut of the inner void, “to stay with me, stay in my arms”, and leads to this magnificent cluttered crescendo, clear illustration of the moving turmoil this stillness can create.
In truth, the two less interesting tracks aren’t intrinsically bad they just feel out of place, like overly simplistic glitches, on this otherwise challenging album. “Marie tu pleures” (Marie you’re crying), is typical of Québec’s mainstream music tropes: the big acoustic guitar sound, the large and layered chorus, the simple percussion… It’s a song made for bonfires in the summer, but maybe not so much for this album. “Le vrai Bonheur” (True Happiness), on the other hand, with its reliance on “la-la-las”, really feels like a letdown, and maybe should’ve been left with the extras on a future compilation, or used for a rom-com’s soundtrack. “28 jours” would’ve been an absolute, no questions asked, better end to this dramatic piece of an album.
In the end, what are we left with? An album that is by far more audacious than it is mainstream. An album which shows growth and that hints at even better things to come. It is an extremely solid effort that contains true gems of songwriting and soundcraft. Last fall, this album won the 2010 Polaris Music Prize ahead of staples of the Canadian music scene such as Caribou, Broken Social Scene and The Besnard Lakes. Since past winners of the Polaris include Patrick Watson and Caribou, maybe there is something to that band that can shine outside our narrow North American language borders. Maybe Les Chemins de Verre holds within it something of the universal, something that one can latch onto, even without understanding the language
Article by Jean-Phillip Guy, Published: July 6, 2011

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