52 Albums, Week 12: Laïs
It is not often that music on the radio stops me in my tracks. I remember it happening when I was seven or eight years old, with Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar”, and twenty years after that, with “’t Smidje” from Laïs, the debut album of the trio Laïs – three young women in their 20s from a village in the heathland north of Antwerp, who managed to record an album that sold over 50,000 copies, something previously unimaginable for Flemish folk music.
I’d gone into a newsagent’s to get something other than a newspaper – a bus ticket, or a parking disc, or mobile credit – at any rate, something that required interaction with the man behind the counter beyond the passing of coins and a muttered please and thank you. I’d gone two steps into the shop when the music stopped me in my tracks, and it was only when I became aware of the newsagent staring at me in mild concern that I realised how odd it must look. “Is this a CD or the radio?” I asked. “It’s the radio,” he said, somewhat cautiously. “You don’t happen to know what it is they’re playing?” I asked, thinking it a long shot. “That’s Laïs,” he said, in tones suggesting wonder at what cave I might have been living in. So I got him to write the name down, concluded my business, and went straight to the nearest music shop.
Part of the attraction was that this was the sort of folk rock sound I like so much (supplied to the three singers by a group called Kadril), accompanying songs in Dutch (or Flemish), a language that has had some horribly experimental folk renditions but otherwise has tended to stick to virtuoso or dirge-like authenticity. Not that the whole album is in Dutch – of the fourteen songs there is one each in English, French, Swedish and Piedmontese. The other part of the attraction is the beauty and enthusiasm of the three-voice close harmony, language to some extent being irrelevant to the sheer sound and energy.
The song above, released as a single (and hence the radio exposure) is the lament of a smith that his beautiful but irritable new bride is denying him the pleasures of just working his anvil and drinking with his friends. It has become a popular dance tune in Poland, where the lyrics must mean nothing. My favourite song on the album is probably the opening number, “De Wijn” (Wine), a paean to the comforting, pleasing and restorative properties of the drink, brought from far away (specifically the land of Cologne over the Rhine) to be enjoyed by friends here.
The a capella “’t Zoutvat” (The Salt Cellar) is a comic morality about a newly wedded man who tries to tell his bride how to organise her kitchen, and the shipwreck of their relationship in the ensuing struggle for supremacy. “De Wanhoop” (Despair) is a rejected lover’s weighing up of the monastery or the army as the best next step, finally settling on the latter.
A few of the songs are ballads with close cognates in the English folk tradition. “Isabelle” and “7 steken” (Seven Stab-wounds) are murder ballads, like “Lord Randall” (or “Lord Ronald”). The hauntingly sung “Bruidsnacht” (Wedding Night) is a story of a ghost lover, very like “She Moved Through the Fair”.
The album was recorded in a studio, but a concert performance can be found at this link.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.
Looking forward to listening to this, Paul. I had a similar track-stopping experience a few years back with the band Beirut, so I know the feeling!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/23/2017 at 07:49 AM
So, Stu, here's your first wom[a|e]n in the series.
Maybe surprisingly for a group little known in the U.S., Laïs was probably going to be in this series even if Paul had not written about them, because they were on my mental list of possibilities. I've actually written about them here before, back in 2009:
I have the album described in that post and on the strength of that bought another, The Lady's Second Song. You may recognize that title--it's a Yeats poem, one of several set to music on that album. I like both albums a lot. I guess they're more aimed at the American market as most of the songs are in English, and it's a very eclectic set. Not many people cover songs from Nico's Desert Shore album.
Posted by: Mac | 03/23/2017 at 07:50 AM
Funny, I was listening to a song by Beirut just recently. Several of their songs were offered as freebies on eMusic a while back and I see that two, Elephant Gun and Postcards from Italy, have four stars in my database.
Posted by: Mac | 03/23/2017 at 07:53 AM
The thing that struck me about the Beirut songs I was hearing was the sheer oddness of them: this very 80s, new-wave sort of vocal style combined with what sounded like Eastern European folk instrumentation. It was bizarre, but strangely attractive. I'm not sure if the songs I heard were from a particular album or from a playlist. The girl at the counter of the store didn't really know either. It was just something they played in the store and she liked it.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/23/2017 at 08:41 AM
Just realised that the "thirty years" should be "twenty years" – it's so long ago already!
Posted by: Paul | 03/23/2017 at 08:47 AM
I've changed it now. It did cross my mind that that seemed like an awfully long time.
Posted by: Mac | 03/23/2017 at 09:05 AM
I'm pretty sure there was talk of another female group fairly early in the series. One I hadn't heard of previously.
Posted by: Paul | 03/24/2017 at 06:46 AM
Oh, of course, SHEL. How could I forget?
Posted by: Mac | 03/24/2017 at 07:47 AM
How could you forget that you could expect to forget?
Posted by: Janet | 03/24/2017 at 10:12 AM
I think I have this figure out. Because time is moving so fast know, we don't have time to store our memories.
Posted by: Janet | 03/24/2017 at 10:14 AM
Yes, I think it must be something like that. To use a computer analogy, memories in RAM are overwritten before they get written out to disk. That's partly because they're coming too fast and partly because the disk subsystem has gotten slower and spending more time doing error recovery.
Posted by: Mac | 03/24/2017 at 10:33 AM
For some reason that analogy made me smile.
Posted by: Paul | 03/26/2017 at 10:03 AM
If I keep making mistakes like that, I'm going to quite posting stuff online.
Posted by: Janet | 03/26/2017 at 11:08 AM
Darn. I wish I could say I did that to be funny.
Posted by: Janet | 03/26/2017 at 11:09 AM
What's funny to me is that I wouldn't have noticed the mistakes if you hadn't mentioned them.
Posted by: Mac | 03/26/2017 at 03:57 PM
Posted by: Janet | 03/26/2017 at 04:43 PM
There not very noticeable.
Posted by: Mac | 03/26/2017 at 07:35 PM
Finally was able to listen to these songs. Great harmonies, for sure! I think, in general, I like the quieter, less rocky numbers better.
Speaking of female singers, here's a song that made me stop and listen in a Sears a few years back. I tried to remember as many of the lyrics as I could, then googled them when I got home.
Funny, but for some reason this particular Sears always had good music playing when I went in!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/27/2017 at 05:28 PM
I may like the two Laïs albums I have better than this one just because the material is mostly in English. One thing that really strikes me about their singing is that it's complex and precise and all that, and at the same time very passionate and sensual--I mean in the sound, not the words (especially)--sort of bursting with it. Much more richly sensual than these pop queens who strip and writhe and talk dirty. I remember saying after listening to The Lady's Second Song that somebody better marry these girls before their house catches fire. Of course being modern young women they are probably long since very well acquainted with sex--the pent-up-ness is probably an illusion.
Posted by: Mac | 03/27/2017 at 10:49 PM
I've always felt similarly about Kate Bush's music, although it has less of that pent-up feel. It's far more "passionate and sensual" than any number of the nasty-talking bumpers and grinders.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/28/2017 at 07:03 AM
Definitely. There's still a lot of her music that I haven't heard and would like to.
Posted by: Mac | 03/28/2017 at 10:14 AM