Metaphysical Meme and Precog Polyart

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Essentials and Rarities Review


Jean Michel Jarre has always been a hard one to crack in the underground, as the memories of his excesses, especially those concerts in front of over a million people and his omnipresence in the eighties, still weigh on us heavily. In fact, even today, his music is seen as an extension of the worst commonplaces of progressive rock, the stuff that punk sought to eradicate: the symphonic, the epic, the virtuoso complacency, the passivity instead of angst, and even a certain scientific optimism close to new age, which is now strangely out of fashion. However, over the past few years there have been cautious attempts to revaluate certain aspects of his production, in the first place with the first wave of cosmic synths led by Lindstrøm, but most of all after the revolution caused by hypnagogic pop. A very clear example was given in a very funny article in The Wire, where Savage Pencil described how “hypnagogic kids” (sic) were flooding the secondhand stores to buy old Jean Michel Jarre vinyls.

The first CD of this double compilation album focuses on the most triumphant part of his career, and not one of his hits is missing, even to the point where it seems too obvious a selection, mostly because there already are a lot of other compilations with very similar tracklists. I suppose it’s a strategy to make the second, much more interesting part more attractive commercially, but in any case, it’s quite revealing to hear those compositions again after a few seasons of listening to artists like Stellar Om Source and Oneohtrix Point Never. Without a doubt, more than one of Jarre’s ideas have been used in hypnagogic pop, although with less grandiloquence and more darkness.

But, as said, the second part of the CD is the truly interesting one. It’s a collection of tracks from albums and singles prior to “Oxygène” (1976), which show quite a different side to the French musician. While it was known that Jean Michel was a student of Pierre Schaeffer in his Groupe de Recherches Musicales (Musical Research Group), it was almost an insignificant piece of information due the fact that the music he made under the influence of that group drew hardly any attention at the time and that, until now, few people had heard it, which made it hard to evaluate the true importance of his episode as a student of one of the pioneers of electronica and concrete music.

The excellent “Happiness Is A Sad Song” is a surprising opening to the second CD, a song made especially for an art exhibition, that shows Jarre as a good student of Schaeffer, completely immersed in the sound of the GRM and getting the best out of it. It’s not bad at all, as a starting point for his career. A big part of what follows shows an embryonic Jarre, experimenting in different fields, like prog, on the delicious “Hypnose”, on which his preference for the grandiloquent melody that has characterised the better part of his work is already showing. “Erosmachine” and “La Cage” were on a 7” that is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting rarities of this collection. It’s a single that would now most likely be released by Ghost Box. The two songs are spot on, from the meticulous sonic design in stereo and the oppressive tone of “Erosmachine” to the rhythmic exploration and abrasive sounds of “La Cage”.

The rest of the selection focuses on the two albums prior to “Oxygène”: the soundtrack of “Les Granges Brûlées” and “Deserted Place”, an album of library music constructed basically from a Farfisa organ and an EMS synthesiser. Of the two, the most interesting moments are on the latter, as the first is somewhat more functional, despite its trademark melodic attractiveness. Those melodies have a very Ghost Box-ish flavour to them on “Windswept Canyon”, of which the placid tone is accompanied on several occasions by a bubbling rhythm and the abrasive character of the sound of the wind mentioned in the title. Many of the tracks off “Deserted Place” are short, as they should be, because it’s library music, but there are also some interesting, albeit failed, experiments, like the upbeat “Rain Forest Rap Session” or the dismissible “Music Box Concerto” and “Iraqui Hitch-Hiker”. The songs from “Deserted Place”, in general, show Jarre as hesitant and irregular, but eager to try out different ideas with a more Spartan aesthetic than what he would do later on in his career.

“Essentials & Rarities” is, therefore, an inconsistent but opportune compilation, as it allows us to clarify his little-known beginnings at a time when his music is on the rise again, thanks to hypnagogic pop and the new cosmic sounds.

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