Music Review: “In Tongues” by French Letters

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Cover for In Tongues. Click to purchase this exceptional recording.

I first saw French Letters playing on the bill with Sad Face in some West Seattle bar several months ago. I knew then I liked them but damned if I could explain why. This was in part because their music doesn’t fit in the modern classify-the-shit-out-of-everything mentality. I tried to describe them to others but fell short. Poetic Lounge Band? An odd combination of Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery and Bob Crewe? The sound of a drunken, smoky bar filled with wanderers, misfits and the usual horny bastards?

I gave up and decided I just liked them because they made me feel good. I really wanted them to make a record so I could get more out of the words than the stray lines you can pick up in a bar where everyone’s angling for a pick up.

Voila, it’s here. In Tongues has hit the streets. I ordered the CD through Bandcamp (http://frenchletters.bandcamp.com/album/in-tongues) and received the limited edition chapbook, which is essential to appreciating the French Letters experience of poetry and music.

The short review is this: In Tongues is an exceptionally compelling record from beginning to end, one that would definitely make my Top 10 List for 2011 if I had one.

And damn, they still make me feel good.

First, the band and the music, because I can see that there may be a tendency to shove the band into the background, given the power of Michael Crossley’s poetry. Michael Puglisi, John E. Naffah, Courtney Steitz and Luke Steitz form an exceptional combo, understated and tight. Since in this case the music must support and enhance the poetry, it is essential that it not detract or interfere from the poetic cadence and meaning. This never happens on In Tongues: the music, which ranges from cheesy lounge to gorgeous acoustic to semi-punk riffs, gives life to the vivid imagery.

You see this from the get-go on “When It Mattered,” a poem that painfully and satirically describes the constant search of the artist for fame and fucking. The entire poem is backed up by a simple bass line, played perfectly by Courtney Steitz. It’s a disarming opener that draws you in, makes you laugh, makes you feel a little embarrassed by the truth and makes you want to hear more.

The smoky-lounge-band persona makes its first appearance in the poem, “West Ashley Crosstown,” where the upbeat finger-snapping music contrasts beautifully with the story of relationship disconnection embedded in the Spanish moss of Charleston.

The band then takes on a sort of Dire Straits persona, where the theme of problematic relationships is extended in “The Less Girls You Know.” This one is full of “wish I’d written that” lines (but I could never duplicate Crossley’s superb delivery):

She craves the attention one would usually reserve for a good novel,

The problem is she reads more like a fortune cookie

Blake once said of Milton that “he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.” Well, Michael Crossley is a true poet of the Devil’s party and he damn well knows it. In addition to the humor and satire that punctuates the work, he is also a master at expressing the underlying truth of the many life situations characterized by  pathos. From the exceptional “Wallflower Among Women,” we hear this:

we don’t seem cool or mysterious

hitting on our waitresses

we just seem lonely and desperate

Crossley spends most of his poetic life in paradox, in contradiction, in irony, often in love or drunk or both. What I most love about his poetry is that he presents paradoxical situations full of exquisite tension without trying to come up with some bullshit resolution. He describes his approach best in the final lines of the dark dreamy mood of “Dead Letter Office”:

Sent words scrambling across the page

while my pen comes down like a bird of prey

While some pieces are stronger than others, there isn’t a single cut on the record that fails. Even the lighter “One for Buddy Holly” works in context because it’s followed by three very intense poetic experiences: “Wallflower Among Women,” “American Skeleton” and “Secret Meaning of a Girl.”

I notice that the Google description for French Letters is “Seattle’s Post Punk Poem Blues Band.” The website says, “French Letters are a unique band that combine the tributaries of spoken word poetry, jazz, rock, and the avant-garde into a single stream of musical consciousness.” Whatever. The primary message to take from this review is that In Tongues is a truly original and compelling work by one hell of a poet and one hell of a band, so get off your ass and go buy it right now.

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