Music: The French have such nice cheese

PHIL JOHNSON ON ROCK & POP Les Rhythmes Digitales Embassy Rooms, London Nitin Sawhney Ronnie Scott's, Birmingham Avishai Cohen Sextet Pizza Express, London

The notion that after generations of sentimental sludge the French have suddenly become au fait with pop is a puzzling one, although it continues to gain ground. Ever since the "little sparrow", Edith Piaf, fell off her perch in 1963 and the great era of chanson died with her, we've been fed an almost constant diet of cross-Channel pap from the likes of Johnny Hallyday, half of Petula Clark (the French half, obviously), Sacha Distel and Francoise Hardy, with only the odd rude noise from Serge Gainsbourg to entertain us in between. Even Plastique Bertrand was Belgian, like the great Jacques Brel and Georges Simenon (who, if only he had made records instead of writing novels, could have been the francophone Nick Cave, so fond was he of sex, death and noirishness). And let's draw a veil over French rock of the 1970s and 1980s. It's too sad, honestly.

The new respect for French pop is largely a consequence of Daft Punk and, especially, Air, whose sublime mixture of cheesy, retro-futurist synths and airport-lounge muzak in Moon Safari has been a big success, although we await their follow-up with interest. No staying power, you see. After brilliant debuts, MC Solar and DJ Cam have got worse rather than better, even though their chosen field of jazzy, funky adaptations of le hip-hop is one where style takes precedence over substance, always a strong French pop point.

So, bring on Les Rhythmes Digitales, mixeur Jacques Lu Cont's montage of, well, cheesy, retro-futurist synths and funky break-beats. What's really interesting about Jacques is that, evidently, he isn't French at all, but only pretends to be, as if in homage to the ultimate in either cool or kitsch, although exactly which isn't entirely clear. His album, Darkdancer (Wall of Sound), is insinuatingly good to begin with, the Air- y textures grounded by a rock-hard drum-machine pulse. But it soon degenerates (no staying power, you see?) into horrible squelchy noises all too reminiscent of a naff early 1980s disco 12-inch. It's selling well all the same, mind, and when I asked my mate who works in a record shop who was buying it, he shook his head ruefully and said: "Students". Still, could Frere Jacques cut it live? More importantly, would ancien regime rocker Nik Kershaw, who makes an appearance on the album, turn up in person? And if he did, what would his hair be like? Given that every noise on Darkdancer probably came ready-tooled out of the same digital box of tricks, live performance was always going to be something of a crucible for Les Rhythmes Digitales. At London's Embassy Rooms on Wednesday night, however, the boy Jacques gave it his best shot. The music was mostly sequenced, with Jacques prodding keyboards and sometimes slapping an electric bass over the top, while a female operative held a low-slung guitar and a person at the back whacked away at a drum-kit.

But music, it soon became apparent, isn't really the key to Les Rhythmes Digitales' appeal. It's leisurewear. Dressed in old-skool, white nylon shellsuits (of such flammability that in the 1970s the government would have made safety films about them), Jacques and his gamine accomplice looked like Ken-and-Barbie-do-car-maintenance, come vividly to life. And Jacques really is a boy, his dyed carrot-top surmounting a ridiculously fresh-faced visage not unlike that of the very young Serge Gainsbourg himself. Bouncing around, Les Rhythmes Digitales provided perfect party fare, and offered an engagingly light and witty take on trance and techno. The packed audience (students and DJs mainly) loved them to bits. Old enough to experience an epiphany of nostalgia from the samples of great early-1980s funk groups such as D Train - cannibalised here - I slipped out before the end, having forgotten all about Nik Kershaw and his haircut. He always was crap, anyway.

At Ronnie Scott's on Monday night, Nitin Sawhney had the opposite problem. As a pianist and guitarist, practising up to eight hours a day since the age of five, there was no doubt that Sawhney could play. But reproducing the sound of his new album, the excellent Beyond Skin (Outcaste), was never going to be easy, given its huge cast of supporting musicians, singers and samples. Perhaps mistakenly, Sawhney didn't go for the widescreen version, settling instead for a reduced aspect-ratio of effects to suit his reduced band. There was an air of tentativeness about the show, accentuated by the venue's sit-down set-up and polite, supper-club atmosphere. But even at half-power, there was enough going on to keep you happy.

The sheer breadth of the music is stunning. When, on "Immigrant", the traditional Indian singer Jayanta Bose intersected Sanchita Farruque's deep soul vocal with an unearthly devotional croon, it was like encountering a tributary of the Ganges running smack-dab through the middle of south London. That Bose retained a supremely bored, hangdog expression only added to the disorienting, cross-cultural effect. Deprived of some guest vocalists, Sawhney's compositions were lighter on the Massive Attack or Bjorkish touches than on record, but featured his own playing more. The instrumental "Tides" was an enthralling duet between Sawhney's echo- laden keyboard improvisations and Marque Gilmore's ticking cymbals, and as the set went on, things got ever more mixed up, with the Asian vocalists switching to Portuguese for a bossa nova, and then to high, keening, Andalusian wails for a spot of flamenco.

Continuing the cross-cultural theme, I caught the opening set of an Israeli jazz double bassist leading a New York sextet at the Pizza Express. Avishai Cohen was making his British solo debut; playing no-frills, all-out bop, like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers led from bass, the band were thrillingly good. They didn't do anything especially new, although there was the odd echo of Yiddish klezmer music, and some Middle Eastern business featuring an oud. But boy, did they have staying power.

Pizza Express: Dean Street, W1 (0171 439 8722)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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