By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In recent years, a French achievement has been celebrated on this side of the Atlantic with a bravado not seen since Hollywood's admiration for the romance of the Resistance--or '60s French New Wave filmmakers realized American men would gladly fork over U.S. coin and accompany their social-climbing sweethearts to talky, subtitled adult melodramas provided European actresses such as Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, and Anna Karina disrobed. This most recent Gallic fixation, French pop--that quirky, often chirpy, elixir that was distilled and refined by such flamboyant '60s habitués as Sylvie Vartan, France Gall, Serge Gainsbourg, and the aforementioned Bardot--has been making a comeback ever since Stereolab switched on its synths to a Neu! world order and found a way to sell watered-down Marxism to the middle-class children of Bill Clinton's America and Tony Blair's U.K. Even the most zealous Francophiles, however, didn't think Stereolab's space-age-bachelor swank got their groove thing going when they really, really, really wanted to work that; they'd rather dip into the sexual healing found in shagadelic struts such as QB Finest's "Ootchie Wally."
But Christina Rosenvinge's Frozen Pool, which was recently released on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records imprint, may be just the sort of cool confection that bridges the gap separating the sensual mind from the sexual body. Discofied dance-pop owns the ins and outs of sex, while "serious" songwriters always have to prove their maturity by shying away from the nitty-gritty main event in favor of adult concerns such as romance, heartache, and restraint. According to pop music, it's the young ones who are getting busy 24-7 while the adults sit around talking about it, but never the twain shall meet. You're either lost in unbridled lust or dealing with its aftermath in self-pity and/or therapy.
Anybody who has ever lusted, loved, lost, and lusted again (and again and again and again) knows that it just doesn't work that way, and Rosenvinge seems to agree. The Madrid-born Dane, who has the alabaster skin that is Denmark's genetic gift and the sultry presence that is Spain's, was a pop sensation in the Spanish-speaking world with the 1980s duo Alex y Christina. Luckily, Rosenvinge met Sonic Youth during one of its Spanish tours, and friendships arose that brought about a trip to New York and a guest vocalist spot on Two Dollar Guitar's Weak Beats and Lame-ass Rhymes. That band's core, guitarist and vocalist Tim Foljahn and Shelley, back Rosenvinge for Frozen Pool, her first solo effort, along with another SY mainstay Lee Renaldo--who contributes guitar, keyboards, and, yes, backing vocals--and bassist Janet Wygal.
Rosenvinge may not shebang-bang as much as hip-hop pop, but Frozen Pool is no less sexy. She's simply tapped into the je ne sais quoi that made the whole package of Gainsbourg, et al. so intoxicatingly alluring. The key to French pop was the realization that that which tickled tingly, naughty parts of the body also wrapped its sticky fingers around the mind. Like Louis Malle's The Lovers, it's not just about sex; it's about looking good and living well and feeling emotionally and psychologically compromised while doing something that makes you feel physically ecstatic and never really knowing if you're doing the right thing even though you know you're going to do it anyway and wondering how all of these decisions are going to affect your life with the wife/husband/significant other/career and having sex.
It helps that Rosenvinge's voice is as brisk as a day at the spa. It's got a finish that's reminiscent of Bjork, especially of the Icelandic wunderkind's 1990 import of jazz sung in Icelandic, Gling Glo. Rosenvinge has the ability to stretch her voice while vocalizing, the way Bjork completes a lyric and widens the tone into a childish glee or a blustery growl. But she doesn't dabble in Bjork's operatic emotion or electro-futurism. Frozen Pool is a very subdued but affecting affair. It's a quality that has many people rushing to compare Rosenvinge to Françoise Hardy, the '60s chanteuse who was one of the more colorful of the whole French pop scene, if only because her marriage to Jacques Dutronc--France's late '60s answer to Ray Davies--made the duo French pop's most musically idiosyncratic couple. (France's most everything couple was always Gainsbourg and whatever gorgeous creature inexplicably sidled up next to him.) Vocally, Rosenvinge and Hardy seethe the same sort of sophistication. Musically, however, Rosenvinge and Hardy have little in common--Hardy is folk-rock ennui to Rosenvinge's jazzy sass. But they both play up and against their perceived personas, that of a woman who looks like a fragile, young innocent yet sings with worldliness. These gals may appear schoolgirls raised under a Puritanical providence, but they've not only been around the block, they've come back for more.
It's a tone perfectly set by the album's opener, "Hunter's Lullaby." Against a nursery rhyme melody, Rosenvinge sings a wishful, forlorn invocation that's seeped in longings and hesitations. Her narrator waits, with approbation, for the hunter who "lost his soul in the wilds," all the while pleading to his absence, "Baby I'm dying to feel your weight on me." More intrepid is "Taking Off," the story of a woman getting over the inevitable crash of carrying on with a married man against being given warnings not to do so at all. The upbeat, jovial melody belies lyrics of adulterous adulation that culminate in a string of rhetorical questions that perfectly capture the entire album's confident sensual mischief: "Did I close my eyes when your advice was so prophetic?/Did I know my chances? So what's the damage? Just cosmetic/Love it comes and goes while you're collapsing on confetti/But now I'm back, I'm back, I'm back, I'm back, and I don't regret it."
This mischievous attitude makes her cover of Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" seethe a bedroom malaise that arguably betters that king of blasé intimacy. And it's an approach to close encounters of the bump and grind that's a welcome repose from rap-rock's porn flirtations and teen-pop's tease.