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Live: Yann Tiersen Gets Playful at Irving Plaza

by Carol Cooper

Yann Tiersen
Irving Plaza
Friday, April 27

Better than: Most of the Philip Glass and Stephin Merritt music I've heard.

Skylinef, Yann Tiersen's seventh studio album, is only the second album of his current deal with Anti- and, like 2010's Dust Lane, it pioneers sonic territory structurally different from the old-fashioned chansons that have been on heavy rotation in downtown Manhattan bistros for months. Gone are the sparse, folk-inflected dreamscapes people remember from 2005's Les Retrouvailles or the twin 2001 releases of L'Absente and Yann's score to the French film Amélie. Fewer acoustic instruments appear, and those that do are distorted or displaced by vintage synthesizer textures. Instead he gives us propulsive drums and wailing guitars hot enough to rival early Roxy Music.

Did ticketholders who considered themselves early fans of Yann's work feel betrayed last night by this new direction? Judging by the mild discontent I overheard among Irving Plaza standees during an almost-two-hour show, the shift will be a risky experiment as he strives to increase his U.S. following. Not that he's worried. Even while securing his place in the lucrative world of film scoring, Yann puts his muse before money, a strategy that seems to have served him well. (And it's worth noting that Saturday's show in Brooklyn sold out in advance.)

Legend has it that somewhere between 1983 and 1984 in the traditionally Celtic region of northwest France, a 13-year-old conservatory student named Guillame Yann Tiersen smashed his violin (along with parental hopes of fast-tracking him into a concert hall career) and went off to play guitar in a scruffy rock band. The band evaporated after a few years but the urge to work within the post-punk, post-digital sampler environment never left the boy.

It wasn't a bad time to abandon classical rigidity for pop inspiration: Malcolm McLaren unveiled both Duck Rock and Fans; Bowie teamed with Nile Rogers to create "Let's Dance"; Run-DMC, Sade and The Smiths released debuts; Tina Turner reinvented her career with Private Dancer; Mark Knopfler scored the film Local Hero; Prince was hot behind 1999 then Purple Rain; Herbie Handcock's kinetic blend of jazz, new wave, and hip hop won five Video Music Awards; and Frank Zappa put out no fewer than eight different album projects.

Not that the classical world was chopped liver: Cage and Stockhausen both had important records out, while Kathleen Battle got her first solo recital as a lyric soprano at the 1984 Salzburg Festival. Musical boundaries and envelopes were being pushed everywhere you looked. Today, Tiersen cites the Stooges and Joy Division as favorite influences, but I suspect that his initial appetite for a punk-flavored D.I.Y. style of expression was sparked by the 1981 French movie Diva, a sleeper hit whose plot and soundtrack passionately interwove the spirit of opera, Eric Satie, atmospheric pop allusions, and bal-musette accordion that would also haunt Tiersen's early recordings -- especially those which became part of his award-winning film soundtrack for The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain.

After dissolving his band, Tiersen holed up in his apartment in Rennes, teaching himself the late '80s art of MIDI production using a cheap mixer, a crate of records, a sampler, a synth and a drum machine and an eight-track. Unlike self-taught rap and dance producers, Yann had no prevailing trends to follow or compete with -- he only possessed a burning desire to create profoundly evocative music. That's why he began looping samples of his own performances as well as trying to cut and paste tasty licks from old vinyl. Over the summer of 1993 Yann recorded over 40 songs, playing all the guitar, violin, and accordion parts himself. This very personal body of work became the foundation of his mid-'90s albums La Valse Des Monstres and Rue Des Cascades.

As a result of his idiosyncratic production methods, certain Franken-notes born from Tiersen's samplers and synths create interesting results. He tweaks and tailors each hum, clink, thrum, bleat and mellotron quaver to a distinctive frequency, a destabilizing process that makes these compositions change slightly each time you listen. Like the image in a mirage taking shape, the arrangements on these two albums interact with a listener's mood and imagination. Live as on record, the songs are unusually brief and prone to slightly abrupt resolutions -- it's as if a rock jam were to be reconfigured along the lines of a piano prelude.

In his new material, Tiersen compresses ideas and emotions into into volatile little song-bombs, almost exactly the opposite of what his longer acoustic orchestrations used to do. Live, he can amuse himself by pushing a song closer to one rock archetype or another just for fun, without compromising the originality his recordings strive to maintain. On Friday, "The Train" was more hyper than its studio version, getting as frenetic as Tull on "Locomotive Breath" until the sextet took it downtempo for a few bars in a brief interlude before speeding up again, headbanger style. The bold acoustic guitar licks of "Amy" gave it a vintage Kinks feel, while "Fuck Me" (also from Dust Lane) boasted an uptempo music hall lilt that was early Brit-invasion boy-pop reimagined by a Freudian psychoanalist.

The militant backbeat of "Palestine" helped the boys chant the letters of its name in harmony, which almost evolved into a Clash broadside until the dance rhythm kicked in and echoes of "Love is the Drug" wafted from the stage. Yann's politics, like his spirituality, can be subtle, but they're evident. Much of the logic behind how songs come together can be traced to his rather cosmic view of human history. The eight songs of Dust Lane and the nine of Skyline are (as some critics have already mentioned) meditations on mortality. At heart Yann's a practical guy who knows the purpose of a memento-mori is to make people start living -- and not merely existing in the distracted, fearful, zombie-life of our modern societies.

During "The Gutter" the whole ensemble crooned in persuasive unison: "Let's dive in the gutter/ try to reach the sea/ . . . let's move to the living world." I can see the potentially humorless interpretation of that lyric. But how can you not laugh with a musician who mocks his own (and the world's) penchant for sampling in the track "Vanishing Point" by stealing samples from other parts of Skyline to create the melodies and rhythms for this sonic pun? Performed near the end of the show the song sounded like a cassette played backwards through radio distortion, the tune actually unmaking itself as it went on.

Yann's four-song encore contained the night's only cover, a version of the country-gospel hymn "Tribulations." Although he's done successful covers on other collaborative albums, tellingly, this was one of the least convincing performances of the night. It didn't sound like the word "Jesus" sat too comfortably in the singers' mouths, but who knows, maybe they were just tired so close to midnight. Finishing the set with "The Trial," though, was a very shrewd move. Not only did its tone bring the concert full circle, it also served to remind the audience that Yann is always likely to be his own biggest critic. In the end, he knows what he did and what he hoped to do -- who better to judge the final result?

Critical bias: I am inordinately fond of toy instruments on "serious" recordings. Also, the first three concerts I paid to see as an adolescent were Steppenwolf, Donovan, and The Incredible String Band.

Overheard: "Do you like any post-rock? It's just like this . . ." -- a guy trying to explain Yann's music to his date.

Random notebook dump: Les Retrouvailles reminds me of the halcyon days of Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Also, what would Balmorhea sound like if Eno produced them?

Set list:
Til The End
Fuck Me
Cascade Steps
Another shore
The Gutter
The Wire
The Train
Chapter 19
I'm Gonna Live Anyhow
Vanishing Point
Exit 25 Block 20
Forgive Me
Le Quartier
The Trial

Published in: Village Voice, April 30, 2012