Categories are devilish things. They seem to exist solely for the purpose of being defied. This goes doubly so when it comes to music, where the albums I find most fascinating and personally resonant resist having a single, easy label applied to them. They say: Just listen for yourself. Months of trying to explain this album to others gave way to me simply pointing to the audio samples. Even a collage of thirty-second snippets speaks louder than any label, and most descriptions too.
I have the equivalent of a whole shelf of music that has nominally been labeled “jazz”, but which could easily sport any of a dozen other categories. Onze Danses has been variously lumped into “jazz”, “world”, “avant-garde”, or that lazy big-box-store catchall “rock”, and while it easily touches down in every single one of those categories it never stays in any one of them long enough to set up housekeeping, or be mistaken for a resident. When writing an earlier draft of this review I came up with the term “gypsy music”, and it stuck.
The pieces on Danses range so widely they should have nothing in common, not even the record title. Some are ditties that come and go in a few seconds. Some revolve around Erik Satie-like piano progressions, some use drum machines and organ, some spin together percussion and wind instruments. Some pick pieces from all of the above. And yet there’s a progression between tracks and a cohesion to the whole thing that allows it to be played all the way through as a single, satisfying whole. Like Godflesh’s Pure, it’s one of those rare records that I put on and leave on, instead of snipping out the Hit Single or fragmenting the tracks across playlists depending on my mood. There’s also something unmistakably “French” about the album — even apart from the language for a couple of the track’s vocals, but in the flavor of the melodies and the way it is clearly indebted to spiritual predecessors like Satie (a favorite composer of mine).
The title in English means “Eleven Dances for Fighting Migraine”, and to call them dances is about right — not in the sense of something you’d do in a club, but as in a performance. Even without your eyes closed it’s entirely possible to see a troupe filling a stage to this music, bending here and leaping there. I notice now that another adjective I used in my earlier review draft was “playful”. Most music with an experimental bent is so far on that side of dour it’s no wonder few people bother with it; it’s more fun to talk about than listen to. Here, the experiments are not just a success on their own terms, but demand to be repeated by others.
Some bands are essentially one man complemented by a whole revolving stable of other musicians. Aksak Maboul’s heart was Marc Hollander, sometime member of the Art Bears and world-music aficionado. The lineup on Danses included Vincent Kenis (later producer for Hector Zazou and Zap Mama), Marc Moulin (also of the synth-pop outfit Telex), keyboardist/percussionist Chris Joris and singer Catherine Jauniaux. All contribute brilliant and precise work — there’s no mindless noodling here — and everything they do clearly revolves around Hollander’s direction and guidance.
Hollander later became a co-founder of one of my favorite record labels, Crammed Discs, a favorite both for the name of the label and the bands they waxed. Among the groups they curated was Minimal Compact, another outfit that bounded freely across genres and between inspirations, but always came back home with treasure. They never strayed too far from the rock basics of guitar/drums/bass/vocals, but never let it hem them in either: they drew as much on their Israeli roots as they did the herky-jerk strum-and-plink of post-punk No Wave. It’s a spirit reflected in Hollander’s own attitude: “I have a kind of phobia of being trapped in a box, Hollander claimed, in an acceptance speech for a WOMEX award, “and that I tend to be restless, always trying to escape categories, to avoid being pinned down.”
Hollander only recorded one other album under the Aksak Maboul label, Un Peu de l'Âme des Bandits (“A Bit of the Bandit Spirit”), a record as dense and demanding — and “experimental” — as this one is engaging, lively and endlessly listenable. After 1980 Hollander concentrated on running Crammed Discs, substituting the creation of his own music with the curation of other people’s sounds. I’d feel that much poorer musically without what Crammed has come to offer, but what I wouldn’t have given to have three or four more Aksak Maboul albums in this world. There’s also the possibility there weren’t any more Aksak Maboul albums that could have been made — that what we got was all that could have been plumbed from that particular well. Somehow I refuse to believe that.