This new disc will appeal to those who have enjoyed John Watterson’s thoroughly idiomatic renditions of Jake Thackray’s songs (as Fake Thackray, he supported Fairport Convention on a recent tour, you’ll remember). John’s last album, The Lost Will & Testament Of Jake Thackray, which resurrected some little-heard or genuinely lost works of the master chansonnier, was a collaboration with fellow-admirer of Thackray and the art of chanson, guitarist and songwriter Paul Thompson. John’s latest project, another collaboration with Paul, is – at Paul’s instigation – another “resurrection”, but this time of the work of a completely different exponent of the art of chanson, a gentleman of distinctly shadowy, obscure and reclusive nature, of whom frustratingly little biographical detail is known (outside of his beloved Thorigny region, that is) – the legendary Frédéric Debreu.
Who? you (and indeed, even the most ardent devotee of the world’s chansonniers) might well ask. In a nutshell, Debreu is the figure celebrated in the novel by Alex Marsh which gives its title to this CD; he’s an enigmatic, much-loved yet long-neglected – and, by the way, entirely fictional – French chansonnier, and this CD purports to present eleven of his songs translated into English and recorded thus for the first time. The (non-fictional) back-story is that Paul enjoyed reading Alex’s comic novel and was so captivated by its many tantalising snippets of Debreu’s lyrics that he persuaded Alex to join him in creating something of a back-catalogue for the chansonnier. Since Paul had already worked with John Watterson on the Thackray project, and the two had developed a great rapport, it was inevitable that John would be approached, as the ideal singer to bring the creations of Monsieur Debreu to life. Which, needless to say, he does absolutely brilliantly and with an air of total authenticity, with deftly configured guitar and double-bass accompaniments by Paul and his son Will Thompson respectively.
True to the traditions of chanson, these eleven songs are by turns humorous, satirical, poignant and moving (and many points in between), and sometimes several of these traits at once. Yet I don’t think it entirely fanciful to observe that one can hear in the disc’s very first selection, The Vengeful Widow, the patter rhythms and deliciously racy wicked wit of Mr. Thackray – it must have been hard for John to resist the temptation to replicate more closely the Thackray vocal delivery, but he carries the difference off well and we’re soon convinced that we’re in the presence of a quite different master of the art of chanson. Here we discover with delight the witty tra-la-la tale of The Pretty Goat, which John dispatches with all due relish. The Twilight Amorist is another of Debreu’s pieces that has a whiff of Thackray (but maybe a tang of Tom Lehrer too), but the slightly Pythonesque tale of The Ironmonger Of Vallières is perhaps rather more akin to Flanders & Swann or Richard Stilgoe.
These chansons are pastiches, sure, but they are the best possible class of pastiche, and created and performed with precision and affection and exclusive respect for the genre. OK, so I might observe that there are distinct moments (some stylistic pointers and/or linguistic giveaways here and there) when I feel Paul or Alex is more than tipping the wink that these songs haven’t after all been translated from French. Indeed, on some songs (eg The Forger), so much of the deliberate wordplay is so very English! But if you’re not cynical enough to be bothering about such niceties or in-jokes, then you will easily take these creations at face value and enjoy this collection on its own terms. Although you will find the works of Monsieur Debreu even more convincing and satisfying if you have Alex’s superb comic novel to hand too.
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