For all the obvious signs of Frenchness they emit, Nôze’s most French quality is their love of caricature. There’s something especially pungent about the way the French exaggerate, and Songs on the Rocks sometimes captures that excess too well. When I first started studying French in high school, the heavy, flared noses, mile-wide lips and smugly reposeful eyes - which I associate now with the political caricatures of Le Canard Enchaîné but which are de rigeur for any notable francophone - seemed like an anachronism. But instead of neutering the satirical effect, the outmoded style inspired a weirdly strong kind of physical repulsion. These images or (more disconcerting) puppets and sculptures accosted me with a disturbing, humorous and distinctly European kind of body angst. It wasn’t until I read the part in Journey to The End of The Night where Céline describes the physical act of speech in gruesome detail that “French caricature” as a unique quality began to make sense. If caricature is excessive representation, it also appeals to the desire for non-representation by foregrounding bodily signs over more contingent ones - fashion, music, etc.
In this month’s Bookforum, Chris Ware writes on Rodolphe Töpffer, a 19th-century Genevan credited with inventing the comic book. Ware describes his drawing style - “jutting chin and squarish, bulbous, protruding nose (what I think of as the “Punch and Judy” or “Lady Elaine Fairchilde” school)” - as a clear forerunner of this kind of modern caricature, but qualifies the similarities by arguing that his “archaic style potentially trips up the possibility for empathy.” This is true for part of Nôze’s shtick, specifically the guy (either Nicolas Sfintescu or Ezechiel Pailhes) whose tuneless, ESL take on Tom Waits featured on 2005’s “Kitchen” single, and who makes an unwelcome return as the focus of Songs on the Rocks’ two longest songs, the eight-minute sinkhole “Childhood Blues” and the seven-minute “Slum Girl,” where the singing is bearable only by comparison. Those disruptions are easier to take in small doses, when the songs threaten sophistication. Nôze pepper tech-house tracks with so many obvious bits of French popular culture, it seems the only way they’re able to avoid cliché is by embracing it. No accordions pop up on this LP, but there’s plenty of tack piano, some carnival organ, a brass band, boozy singalong choruses and imported, sludgy “Peter Gunn” guitar.
Nôze caricature their Frenchness as if it were a conduit to universality, which is one explanation as to why this album doesn’t feel like a throwback to '90s exotica. In this, they’re similar to Hot Chip; it’s fitting that the U.K. band’s DJ-Kicks closed with the Parisian duo’s “Love Affair.” The connection is even more direct, though: both bands use uprooted bits of pop culture as a dance lingua franca. But unlike their filter disco peers, Nôze play up their foreignness by taking on unfashionably romantic, corny and outdated aspects of French culture that transfer directly to American pop culture, rather than starting with '80s laser nostalgia. There is no word or concept in French equivalent to Anglo-American pop, and Songs on the Rocks revels in limiting themselves to a shared understanding of Frenchness. By which, I don’t mean they’re concerned only with being comprehensible to Americans; their style makes some concessions to American pop, but they’re useful restrictions instead of a one-way exchange. “You Have to Dance,” the album’s most dense production, fully exploits the area of cultural overlap to create a song that belongs to none of the genres that seem to make it up. Like the rest of the album, it verges on goofy transcendence.