April 1, 2012

Mink DeVille - Le Chat Bleu [Overlooked Albums]

By Angel Aguilar

One could picture the blanched faces of Capitol Records executives when Willy DeVille explained the concept for his band’s third album. He wanted to record in France, using the string-arrangement skills of Jean Claude Petit to capture the Continental sounds he heard in his head. It sounded risky and expensive. The sensible course for a fledging, unproven band was to record in New York, as quick and cheap as possible, but Willy DeVille was not a sensible man.

Unique among CBGB’s regulars, Mink DeVille was an electrifying band that mixed punk attitude with rhythm and blues nuance. Frontman Willy DeVille carried himself with a dandy’s flair, his soulful voice conveying many emotions, easily moving from aching ballads to lusty blues. At that point their first two records, though well received by critics, were chart-bottom dwellers. So far, the group’s biggest success was a modest UK hit with Spanish Stroll, further explaining Capitol’s reluctance.

The first two albums were models of spare, no-frills rhythm and blues. Le Chat Bleu was a grander concept, taking the music back to the Latin-tinged arrangements heard in classic songs by The Drifters and the melodrama of European cabaret songs. Three of the album’s ten songs were written in partnership with songwriting legend Doc Pomus, all standout tracks that could be mistaken as Brill-Building standards. Pomus could put together a story with a few choice lines. A case in point is Just To Walk That Little Girl Home which, from the first note, conveys the mood of a closing bar, deep romantic longings, and late-night lonely strolls. There’s no detachment here, no ironic distance. This music is meant to be felt, capable of disarming hardened cynics. DeVille, who learned his lesson from a master, follows this emotional tread throughout Le Chat Bleu.

This Must Be The Night opens the album like an electric storm, with DeVille and a female chorus capturing the excitement of a first date, climaxing with a delirious sax solo by Steve Douglas. Savoir Faire and Lipstick Traces are hard-driving rock ‘n roll songs about obsession. There are two sides to it; the former has a man in thrall of a French beauty, thrilled by the chase, and the roles are reversed in the latter, with the man trying to get out of a suffocating relationship.

The tempo slows to adagio on That World Outside, a song about the power of love helping to cope with a harsh reality. You Just Keep Holding On speeds up the tempo with a full Spector sound, complete with castanets and soaring strings.

There are two well-chosen non-originals; Bad Boy is an obscure doo-wop track from 1957 that fits perfectly with DeVille’s persona while Mazurka is an accordion-driven zydeco song by Queen Ida which points forward to DeVille’s latter career as a New Orleans revivalist. The song was replaced in the U.S. version of the album by the guitar-driven Turn You Every Way But Loose. If you find the album’s expanded edition, you’ll get both.

Slow Drain is another highlight, a danceable cha-cha track with Latin horns and percussion. The lyrics, drawn from personal experience, are about people losing their will to drugs and having no-one to blame but themselves. If Lou Reed had grown up in the barrio, he’d sound like this. Heaven Stood Still caps the album with melodrama, a French chanson in the Jacques Brel style. Maybe it was the audacity of these songs that scared Capitol executives, who refused to release the album in America. To this day, it’s easier to pigeonhole an artist into one niche, branding them as a commodity for public consumption. DeVille never played by those rules.

Le Chat Bleu was hailed by many critics as the best album of 1980, which didn’t sway Capitol until import sales shot up. This belated, grudging release made little impact on retail sales, and the album stalled at number 167 on the U.S. charts.

After losing his battle with Capitol, DeVille went on to record for two other major labels, keeping a strong fan base in Europe. In America, he remained a low-profile artist. It certainly didn’t help that for years he was a heroin addict, going through rehab cycles until he was finally clean.

The strangest moment in DeVille’s life came about when he was nominated for an Oscar for Storybook Love, a song he’d written with Mark Knopfler that appeared in The Princess Bride. It was thrilling to watch DeVille perform on the Oscar ceremony stage, but destiny didn’t keep him out of the fringes for long.

After a move to New Orleans, DeVille started recording for small labels, spearheading a revival of local music. A resurgence of sorts came around 1992 when he toured Europe with New Orleans musicians, and his records began to chart over there. He still took time to explore new musical vistas, including music connected to his Native American roots. Given this gift for musical exploration, it’s not surprising that his highest-charting hit was in France with a mariachi version of Hey Joe.

DeVille died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, leaving a legacy of 14 studio albums, eight released as a solo artist. It’s a legacy that’s still underappreciated to this day, but that could be remedied. If you love passionate, intimate, and heartfelt music, listen to Le Chat Bleu. It’s all there in the grooves.
[3 January, 2012 - 20:48 — Angel Aguilar]

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