Bertrand Burgalat: The SSSound of MMMusic

Bertrand Burgalat
The SSSound of MMMusic
Emperor Norton

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but it’s starting to feel like something out of The Shining up here at the top of Kimball Road in Iowa City. Last weekend it was 65 degrees. Kids walked around in T-shirts and flip-flops; hoards of earnest recreators streamed past my door as they took advantage of the freakish weather; my cats lolled around under the lilac tree in the front yard, which was starting to sprout a few ill-fated buds.

But by Wednesday night it had been snowing already for eight hours, and I had to abandon my car downtown after a harrowing, abortive attempt at the rear-wheel-drive-slalom. Back in the house at the top of Kimball Road, the snow fell fast, thick, and steady, only to be interrupted by bouts of freezing rain. By Friday afternoon I was out of water and subsisting on pieces of lettuce spread with mayonnaise and rolled into bite-sized tubes. By Friday night I had shoveled the driveway three times and had 200 typed pages of “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES MARGARET SOMETHING SOMETHING”.

I may therefore add to the list of this album’s many merits the fact that it may have in fact saved my ever-loving mind.

The SSSound of MMMusic is the first solo album from Corsican super-producer Bertrand Burgalat. You might have heard of Corsica’s other famous export, Napoleon — founder of numerous pastries, dress styles, psychological complexes, and, in his own words, of the French Empire. Corsica is a sun-drenched, rocky island. And, although it is technically part of France, its location makes it a closer cultural cousin of the Mediterranean nations, of Greece and Sicily and Crete. The same indolence, opulence, and grace that one might rather romantically associate with these locales — not to mention sunshine — are woven into the sparkling strands of this delightfully complex recording.

Burgalat’s influences are not hard to identify: he owes his croon to that old Frog, Serge Gainsbourg; his beats and burbles to Stereolab and Air (one of his producing credits) and his sense of style to Moby and Beck. However, when I listened to this album, the first thing that came to mind was the short-lived Brazilian band Os Mutantes. Back in the late ’60s, Os Mutantes single-handedly combined bossanova with surfer rock sensibility to make what rock critics call tropicalia. The feel was both smart and lax, both sexy and goofy, and altogether infused with a sort of equatorial glow. Most importantly in terms of comparison with Burgalat’s outing is the sense of eclectic cohesion. Os Mutantes recorded songs in French and in Portuguese and in English; they had both male and female voices; they went from up-tempo chant-along freakouts to smoldering chanteuse showcases in the twitch of a brilliantly feathered hip.

So The SSSound of MMMusic also sings in many languages, and moves seamlessly from Laugh-In style groovy beats to airy, atmospheric soundscape (as on “Pas Perdus”, literally “Lost Steps”). Burgalat’s got a lot more electronic noisemaking at his disposal then Os Mutantes ever could have had, but one of the virtues of this album is that he never uses it as a crutch. Often he’ll record and manipulate live instruments rather than using the electronic shortcut, as with the strings and saxophone on “Nonza”. Similarly, vocalist Joanne Colan is allowed to use her husky contralto sans effects for most of the handclap-accented “Sunshine Yellow” but then, as her voice hits the chorus it separates into eerily digital dots and dashes. This song is probably the one that really saved me from gnawing off my own arm, because it’s just so so fun. There’s gorgeous, sparkling keyboard, chunky organ, and a soaring bridge complete with strings and luscious “ooh oooh ooh” backup singers.

Another standout is the lazily swinging “Tsom”, with its flute, strings, and wash of “aaah aaah” female vocalists intoning “that’s the sound of music”. Just as you think you’re going to ride this one out on pure foam, Burgelat’s own voice comes in with another “sound of music” and the song chaotically transitions into some sort of dub freak out. On a totally different note, I fell in love with the wispery, elusive “L’Observatoire”. This time Burgalat lets the flute carry the melody and the guitar provide the dub; his velvety, French vocals murmur enigmatically “marchons vers l’observatoire” (let’s walk to the observatory?) while the strings rocket up and down the scale in dazzling arpeggios. My French isn’t good enough to really understand what’s going on — but I don’t care! I still swooned. On the next tune Burgalat’s voice is cloaked in deep reverb as he croons, “le pays imaginare est un pays marveilleux” — “the imaginary country is a marvelous country.” Oh yes, yes it is. Especially if, like the album’s cover art, it features sun-bleached rocks, immaculate beaches, and quiet seas.

If you live on the top of a hill and feel as though you are being buried alive by snow, I highly recommend that you contact the Emperor Norton website listed above and have this album Fed-Exed to your location. Bring in the snowcats if you have to. This postmodern psychadelic groove-in is just what the doctor ordered. As Austin Powers once quoted, “It’s my happening, and it freaks me out!” Yeah, baby.