Camembert and Absynthe, Anyone?
If the subject were of a gastronomic nature, I'd recommend the cheese but would suggest giving the liquor a wide berth - a nice old Armagnac, now that would be an entirely different matter... However, Monsieur Camembert is no cheese. They are an outstanding band from Oz whose repertoire is drawn principally from gypsy music, gypsy swing (that they are great
fans of Django Reinhardt and his and Stephane Grappelli's Quintette du Hot Club du France is very obvious), klezmer, Yiddish song, swing, Eastern European music, and Musette music, with touches here and there of Latin American flavours, notably tango. Monsieur Camembert's music is a heady but extraordinarily tasteful and refined cocktail of all of these, whose flavour at first comes as something of a surprise that gets more and more delightful with each sip. As you listen to their latest album, Absynthe, released in June and distributed by MGM Records, you cannot fail to be gripped by this irresistible mix. It's utterly irrepressible, lively as well as emotional, and just incredibly joyous.
Monsieur Camembert, who are winners of the 2002 ARIA Award for World Music for their previous album, Live On Stage, are a ballsy band, combining spontaneity with virtuosity, originality and tight ensemble playing, not to mention seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, led by the irrepressible Yaron Hallis. Listening to Absynthe, you wish you could attend one of Monsieur Camembert's live performances of their so eminently danceable and joyous, celebratory music, and you can't help getting a little envious of the Aussies. These guys (and gal) play with an infectious fervour and passion, matched by the expertise to hold it all together.
Just shy of fifty minutes long, Absynthe offers ten tracks of sheer delight. That timeless Duke Ellington classic, Caravan, provides a challenging opener. It would have been all too easy to fall into one of the common traps like giving this standard an overly "Middle Eastern-as-perceived-by-Western-Ears" kind of treatment, or a more or less "straight" interpretation with perhaps touches of klez. Fortunately, Monsieur Camembert not only avoid all such pitfalls but give us one of the most inventive and exciting versions of Caravan yet. My personal particular favourite interpretation has always been the late great Herbie Mann's from his 1960s album Herbie Mann Plays Afro-Cuban Jazz, as the most exciting, downright gripping, and imaginative one. Monsieur Camembert's version comes very close to this indeed and on first hearing actually had me jumping off the sofa. Caravan is truly remarkable with its mix of Middle Eastern-meets-avantgarde touches and tango, swing and musette. A flute solo provides another link with the Herbie Mann version, and other moments remind surprisingly of Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble. A stunning track. But the rest of the album doesn't let up! The traditional Adon Olam is given a decidedly un-traditional treatment that is utterly enchanting with its touches of swing and musette, and the vocals have you quite breathless. Kiss Of Fire is given a predominantly tango treatment with a surprise twist in the middle and "Hot Club" swing touches in the second half, and superbly blends high melodrama with genuine passion. Brahms' Hungarian Dance #5 subtly and reverentially pokes a little gentle fun with a supreme blend of gypsy, swing, Balkans and musette styles. Can I Have You, Please not only reveals Yaron Hallis to be an outstanding, expressive singer with a perfect blend of passion and sensitivity, but also has Edouard Bronson, whose superb flute on several other tracks also begs mention (and I'd venture to say seems to reveal influences of the late Herbie Mann), shining with an impassioned tenor solo of which one dearly would love to hear more. And one will, on the very next track, Ferra's Michto Pelo, along with some truly outstanding guitar work. Full Tschel is given the closest thing to a traditional approach to be found on this album, with another, distinctly non-traditional, wonderful tenor solo. The Lecuona classic Camina Crusados doesn't escape the Camembert treatment either, and has to be one of the highlights of this album that seems to consist entirely of highlights. Bronson again shines with another couple of, somewhat Barbieriesque tenor solos, and the guitars are breathtaking. A Good Time Was Had By All sums up Absynthe very nicely, although not the closer. That role goes to Leonard Cohen's Dance Me To The End Of Love. Cohen of course is often described as "music to commit suicide by". Monsieur Camembert, for the first time in my listening experience, manage to preserve this feeling, this mood, and wonderfully so, with great sensitivity and poignancy. And just as in the Cohen original, there is also a counterbalancing element of cautious hope, a faint glimmer of a distant light. There is even a haunting flute solo to uplift the mood a little. Yaron Hallis is the first singer to give a truly credible interpretation of a Cohen song, and an original one too.
Although not all members of Monsieur Camembert have been mentioned individually, they all absolve themselves with wonderful finesse and shine in their own right. The cover art must also be mentioned - a superb "poster" in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec. Sadly, the scan looses all the subtlety of the print. Absynthe is an outstanding album - grab it if you can! Monsieur Camembert is a band that really should travel far beyond the western Pacific rim, and lots.
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