|The difference between retro cool and anachronism is one of attitude. You can pillage all the referential kitsch you want – whether roller-rink synth lines, electro-clash machine-drums, J-pop croonery, glitter-ball dance beats or advertising jingle cleverness – from whatever decade and stay current, as long as you maintain the right degree of certitude. “Le hip, c’est moi,” is the necessary stance. Start to doubt yourself, and it’s all downhill.
Baby Ouh!, the 10th album from the long-running Franco-German duo of Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring, is a polyglot wink at trash pop history, effervescently filthy-mouthed and off-handedly intelligent. Songs start in one language, notch a few pop culture references, then insouciantly switch to another. There’s a bouncy decadence in even the slightest of these tracks, a gleeful whirl to the bottom sound tracked by super-sugary disco. You might catch a whiff of Abba in the crack house, or Donna Summer waking up in the gutter, neither a terrible thing in itself. And yet, you can’t help but feel that Stereo Total is dancing a little too fast, cracking a little too wise. When mid-way through 2010, you still look to Divine and Andy Warhol for iconic style, you’re not retro anymore, you’re just passé.
Thus while previous Stereo Total discs charmed with their deadpan cool, this one has a manic quality to it, as if relevance had to be proved, track by track, chorus by chorus. It starts with the very unsettling “Hello Ladies,” told in Cactus’ voice, from the perspective of an aging ladies room attendant. Caustic asides like, “I give make-up advice that they know already / They don’t give a shit about my long life,” are obviously about all kinds of things: the shallowness of the party culture, the corrosive effect of income inequality, age-ism, etc. But the song might just also be about being a pop singer in a culture that moves with lightning speed, forgetting about bands far more recently born than Stereo Total, and leaving hardly a bubble in its wake. (Today’s empty icon, Lady Gaga, gets a nod later on, in the dreamily melancholy “Lady Dandy.”)
It’s Göring who scores the sharpest points on this disc, with his sort-of tribute to Almodovar’s Bad Education in the song “I Wanna Be a Mamma.” The lyrics veer into dysfunction almost immediately, as Göring daydreams about cross-dressing a son and naming him Lucifer, yet the music bubbles on in a happy, cluelessly buoyant melody. It makes you wonder, if you don’t speak French or German, what the hell these two go on about during the rest of the album.
The covers on Baby Ouh! showcase a playful, irreverent expertise that covers many different styles of pop. There’s a panting, electro-bop version of Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” a disco-trash romp through Brigitte Fontaine’s “La Barbe A Papa,” and a tongue-in-cheek gender-play on “Wenn Ich Ein Junge Wär,” (“If I Were a Boy”) from 1950s pop star Rita Pavone (via Nina Hagen). But none of these are as simultaneously clever and silly, daring and frivolous, as Cactus and Göring on their own account, enumerating the contents of Divine’s handbag (“Divine”) or crying metal tears (“Larmes De Métal”).
It would all be quite enjoyable if you didn’t have the sense that they were trying too hard, and, in frantically reconfiguring the most transient of pop kitsch, had somehow become their own raw material.
By Jennifer Kelly