Yann Tiersen
In São Paulo

By Martin Longley

Most of us first heard Yann Tiersen's music when he assembled the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie flick, plucking out some of his older miniatures, and adding newly prepared material. His compositions emerged from the tiny world of a child's playroom, totally evocative of Parisian circus crankiness and café tinkling, imbued with a faintly sinister innocence. When Tiersen's music subsequently became a staple of Radio 3''s Late Junction programme, these were the carefree sounds we first heard.

Then, a few years back, Yann felt the urge to strap on his electric guitar, hung in the low-slung manner, and form a rock band, re-living the music that in reality he'd always been influenced by, wanting to be in a Gallic Sonic Youth. So, pushing forty, his dream came true, and Yann started touring with this rifferama sound, joined by two other axemen and a heavy drummer. The presence of Christine Ott, playing the Ondes Martenot, was the only concession to arcane wonderment. This keyboard-like machine was one of the earliest electronic instruments, patented in 1928, and used principally by French composer Olivier Messiaen, with Eddie Varèse also having a dabble in later years. It oscillates a monotone, not unlike the weebling theremin.

Tiersen's latest album is On Tour, and its contents will prepare us for his current live set. Previously, he'd been playing either in front of orchestras, or partnered by a mere twosome. A South American tour precedes his UK dates, later this month. Here in São Paulo, he's sold out two nights on the run.

The approach is simple. It's classic rock, after The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, The Pixies and Arcade Fire, hanging around massed riffing density, yet still dependent upon finely-balanced mixing, so that all of the beautifully layered distortion can pile up into a blossoming wall of sound. Tiersen sings in French, and sometimes English, with an appealingly nasal tone. He's deploying the very cliché matter of rock 'n' roll, but the Ondes Martenot imparts an other-worldly character, whilst the lead guitar of Marc Sens surges up with a brutal attack that borders on clumsiness. Fortunately, he judges just the right ratio of macho destruction.

A problem that's encountered is that with the brevity of some numbers, particularly the instrumentals, there's a feeling that these are sketches for a future rocking soundtrack, often revolving around a single, simple motif. But then Tiersen will suddenly deliver a mighty tune, hitting a nerve of tense excitement, and goading his bandmates into a complete rock'n'roll blow-out.

Apparently, there are a few problems with Tiersen's effects pedal array, or at least I hope so, given the almost constant scampering of his tech-roadie. Sometimes it's distracting, when Yann's making so many guitar changes, then switching to violin and occasional accordion or toy piano. His violin sound's as distressed as his guitar's, sawing with a raggedly primitive edge. Did I mention the Velvets earlier? Am I hallucinating, or are they now thundering through a rocked-up version of the Amélie material? Certainly, Tiersen will shock any audience members who turn up desirous of his established soundtrack amble, but they will hear how the same mind works with huge amplification and a more traditional set of instruments. Not quite as unusual, maybe, but still slightly odd within the realms of a guitar band.
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