A nearly essential set, but misguided rhythms are its unfortunate downfall.
French-Portuguese singer-songwriter Catherine Ribeiro was blessed with gorgeous, versatile pipes that she stretched to their limit. With a dramatic power perhaps fueled by the troubles she saw as a child—from the death of her brother when he was an infant to the bomb raids her family endured in Paris in the early ‘40s—she sang the gamut from achingly beautiful folk melodies to feral psychedelic howls. The musicians that backed her up in Alpes, which was active from the pivotal year of 1968 through 1981, for the most part provided consistent support. However, the one exception can be a deal breaker. While the band, which featured guitarist Patrice Moullet as the only constant, had the chops to sell the relatively conventional beauty of Ribeiro’s art-folk-prog leanings, their flights of avant-garde fancy were less reliable. Anthology Records have released the first three albums from Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes for the first time in the United States, and while the music has long been championed by such sonic adventurers as Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, it doesn’t always live up to its reputation.
The gentle classical guitar fragment “Prelude” opens N°2 before the album starts to reach for psych-folk heights. Ribeiro immediately establishes her vocal confidence with “Sîrba,” and the organ drone backup sets the right tone, a little unsettling and more than a little daring. But the percussion, which is an intermittent problem throughout the three albums, is raw to the point of chaotic, and not in a good way. Percussionist Denis Cohen doesn’t seem to be listening to his bandmates, gleefully pounding out rumbling rolls that never gain focus. This dissonance may well reflect volatile times, but while it’s superficially wild and energetic, such tracks would be better off without any percussion at all. Like the delicate ballad “15 Aout 1970.” You can hear Ribeiro’s talent as an actor here; she appeared in a handful of films, including Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 war dramedy Les Carabiniers, and Moullet’s fingerpicked accompaniment makes this a perfectly realized miniature drama. “Silen Voy Kathy“ better sells Ribeiro’s growling range, as her voice settles in for a slow burn that grows in intensity for more than seven minutes, her band never letting her down—largely thanks to percussion that’s limited to a gradually thundering cymbal.
This can be frustrating stuff; Ribeiro unfailingly takes full vocal command of her charges, but too often she’s undermined by indifferent rhythms. Imagine what this material would sound like with a responsive jazz drummer? Moullet’s guitar, whether taking on traditionally-minded acoustic melodies or wandering off into heavily-distorted psychedelia, is an apt foil, but the rudimentary drumming fails him on “Poème Non Epique.”
From 1971, Âme Debout (Soul Standing) finds Ribeiro growling with ever more power, the opening title track featuring a kind of art-folk ululating that builds a thrilling incantation aptly supported by strings and guitar interjections. Fortunately, the percussion, courtesy of the percuphone, a mechanical device Moullet created to play bongos, is mixed down just enough so that it doesn’t derail the proceedings. The rhythms finally start to come together on “Alpes 1,” the percolating beat of the percuphone working with the rest of the band and not against it. This is where Ribeiro + Alpes start to live up to the hype and become an exciting discovery—and at its best, it’s stripped down, as on the haunting a capella intro to “Aria Populaire.“
With the longest, freest tracks of the three albums, 1972’s Paix is the one with the most buzz. It opens with what may be the best single-ready track of the collection, “Roc Alpin,” a driving organ line propelling Ribeiro’s wordless vocals in a concise three-minute statement. But, for better or worse, it’s the epic freak-outs that define the album, and the percuphone rhythms are too simple for the leader’s expansive vision. The 16-minute title track seems slightly diminished by the monotonous thuds that offer inadequate support to the rest of the group. Ribeiro doesn’t come in until nearly six minutes have passed. Her lyrics, translated, are kind of a proto-Patti Smith (but without a good drummer) “Peace to those who howl because they can see clearly/ Peace to our sick souls, peace to our broken hearts/ Peace to our tired, tattered limbs.” The vocals are delivered with enough drama to overcome their beat generation sentimentality, but as happens far too much on these albums, the leaden beats take down the intensity a peg or two. The side-long “Un jour… la mort” (“One day … death”) runs for almost 25 minutes, and thanks to more subdued percussion, it actually sustains much of that time…until that damned pounding begins anew. Too bad; its lyrics are kind of funny: “Say, Death, dear woman, beautiful Death/ You’re squeezing me a little too close, too tightly/ I’m not really a lesbian, you know?”
It’s a shame you can’t mix out the percuphone from these frequently spellbinding albums. Ribeiro has the technique and conviction to make this a nearly essential set, but misguided rhythms are its unfortunate downfall.