Les Chauds Lapins
Les Chauds Lapins (“the hot rabbits”), led by New York’s Kurt Hoffman and Meg Reichardt, specialize in a repertoire of French swing from the 1920’s through the 40’s. The group has re-arranged long-forgotten French classics for banjo-ukes, string trio, guitar and winds, mixing the rootsiness of early American jazz with the lushness of a Bernard Hermann film soundtrack.
Prior to their turn as French entertainers, Meg Reichardt was best known as one fourth of Americana group The Roulette Sisters and Kurt Hoffman as co-leader of cult instrumentals band The Ordinaires, and as sideman and arranger for such luminaries as They Might be Giants, Frank Black and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Neither Kurt nor Meg are French. Their leap from art-rock and Americana to the world of French chanson may seem far-fetched, but the progression isn’t as absurd as it may seem.
“Meg and I had independently spent a lot of time with American popular music from the 20s through 40s. The pivotal moment for us was the discovery of singer/songwriter Charles Trenet,” says Kurt. “He combined American big band swing with French chanson like no one else had up to that point. For us, it was like the dream where you find the hidden door into the extra room in your apartment — Trenet pointed the way to an entire parallel universe of great jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs….in French. And as in a dream, we examined them, only to discover they were sometimes a bit strange.”
“Watching clips of him perform,” says Meg, “you find he’s so debonair and charming. Then you check out the lyrics — it’s a whole separate surprising treat.” A close friend of Jean Cocteau and his circle, Trenet mixed absurdist humor, surrealist touches and puns. Trenet’s “Le Fils de la Femme Poisson,” for instance, proves to be an ode to unreciprocated love, in this case between a headless woman and her hapless suitor.
“Trenet was your quintessential art-pop guy,” adds Kurt, “He came from an art school and filmmaking background. Smart and literate, he wrote quirky, witty books. That background gave him the chops and confidence to write songs that are artfully unconventional. He was gay, and certain songs have intriguing subtexts. And yet he was massively successful in France.”
The explosive development of American jazz in the 1920s launched a worldwide cultural revolution not unlike that of psychedelia close to fifty years later. Local music scenes around the globe voraciously absorbed jazz into their local styles — and France wasn’t spared.
The Lapins’ love of Trenet led them to rediscover lesser-known artists such as the writing team of Mireille and Jean Nohain. Mireille, too, was associated with the avant-garde — indeed her husband was Emmanuel Berl, the celebrated writer, political philosopher and relative of Marcel Proust. Mireille gave up a career as a classical pianist to write songs influenced by Cole Porter and sing them in a droll, piping falsetto.
Like the French models they emulate, Les Chauds Lapins take their music off the grid. Their arrangements contrast scored strings and horns with vintage fretted instruments, most notably banjo ukuleles, a hybrid instrument popular in the 20s and 30s. “Due to the instrument’s stretched animal skin resonator, it’s got a distinctive sound, earthy, percussive and colored by surprising overtones. Need it be said, banjo ukes are not typical of French music at any point in history.” By mixing the Americana quirkiness of banjo-ukes with the narrative versatility of a string trio, they remain faithful to the inventive spirit of the original songs and give them a luster that eschews quaintness and easy cliché.
Their new album, “Amourettes” is a tribute to music Les Chauds Lapins intimately identifies with. “Human passion seems fantastical, unreal — yet it’s what drives us to kiss, to embrace, to undress, to do a thousand good and bad things. It’s what attracts Les Chauds Lapins to these marvelous songs, which are the pinnacle of a flippant, fantastical, infectious songwriting tradition that blossomed in the theaters, cabarets and music halls of France.”