Hailing from surf resort Biarritz in the southwest of France, modern-day psychedelists La Femme have finally released their debut album, Psycho Tropical Berlin. Readers of The Guardian might know La Femme already — they were Band of the Day last year. They’ve been around the US a handful of times, most recently with Maximo Park last year. After five-odd years of EPs and singles, those already familiar with La Femme will find their favourites reworked for the LP. Those unfamiliar with the group get to throw on their go-go boots for the first time.
Formed in 2007, La Femme follow a rich hipster tradition of female-gendered band names (Women, Girls, Japanese Women, and so on). Namely, they didn’t actually have any women in the band for most of their career. But recently, mysterious chanteuse Clémence joined on as La Femme’s lead vocalist, and it’s the exact ingredient La Femme needed; Psycho Tropical Berlin puts her lush vocals centre stage, all sweet and dark as LSD-laced sugar. Fans of ’60s girl-pop — especially of French and Japanese mid-century chansons — will find much to enjoy here.
So will fans of Stereolab, who covered some of this ground in the ’90s. See, La Femme aren’t so much a ’60s throwback as a ’90s one — this is the same sort of filtered nostalgia that peaked in the era of bowling shirts, Rat Fink decals and tiki lounge revivals. Like ’90s icon Quentin Tarantino, who singlehandedly made Dick Dale and France Gall big again, La Femme play fast and loose with their influences. La Femme’s referents are similarly cinematic, evoking Russ Meyer, the Munsters and James Bond in winking homage.
The title Psycho Tropical Berlin is accurate, whether La Femme means it or not: the surf-rock guitars are the definition of tropical, the New Wave keyboards are very Berlin (jury’s still out on whether that means the synthpunk-pioneering city or the band who gave us “Pleasure Victim”; it could easily be both), and the whole package sounds, well, a little bit psycho. It’s not the over-the-top Silver Surfer space-soundtrack of, say, Man or Astroman, but it’s one tasty alt-pop brew.
Each track on Psycho Tropical Berlin expands on the core premise without wearing out its welcome. The album goes through a variety of moods and textures but revisits funhouse horror several times. The urgent “Sur la Planche 2013” fuses Devo synth-stabs with ghostly yé-yé girl vocals. The campy, theremin-inflected horror ballad “La Femme” comes complete with an 11-minute grindhouse music video. And that’s not even the most Halloweeny song on the album; there’s also the creaky, Haunted Mansion-esque “Le Blues de Francoise”. Bloodthirsty goth-witches cavorting to surf-rock guitars in a cascade of low-fi ’90s referents? Someone get Rob Zombie on the line.
Psycho Tropical Berlin was released April 16th from DEP / Universal Music France – Québec. La Femme will be seen in Canada next at the francofolies de Montréal on June 20th. In the meantime, make some popcorn to enjoy the epic-length video below!
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