The Girls Can't Help It
LES FILLES DU CRÉPUSCULE (LTM)
It’s appropriate that the song to open a collection of female-featured bands should be “The Boy from Ipanema,” a gender-subversion of the casually leering bossa nova chestnut. Isabelle Powaga, vocalist for the Parisian group Antena, sing-chants the lyrics so blithely—save for a big, teasing ay-ay-ay—that it’s clear “the boy who goes walking” is far from the most interesting thing on the beach: being with a gaggle of girlfriends is much more fun. Antena released the kooky cover in 1982 on Belgian label Les Disques du Crépuscule. Various selections from the label, dormant since 2004, have recently been reissued by LTM Recordings, including its latest all-femme offering, Les Filles du Crépuscule.
Something of a partner to Manchester’s Factory Records, Les Disques du Crépuscule, which was founded in 1980, released records by A Certain Ratio, Josef K, and Michael Nyman, among others. The two labels’ similarities go beyond era-defining music: both had nightclubs-cum-playgrounds (Interference was, perhaps, the Hacienda of Brussels) and in-house sleeve designers who helped develop their identities. Think of Crépuscule’s output as a slinkier, more Francophilic take on Factory: synths are sharp, vocals braying, and chants succinct. But it also has a sense of fun. Twee torchbearers the French Impressionists (actually Glaswegian) borrow tuneful licks from George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael for the standout track “Pick Up the Rhythm”; Marie Audigier croons playfully like a Café de Flore cherie—albeit one with pictures of Kate Bush in her shoulder bag. Next to the chirpy Antena—whose Powaga dabbled in jazz and Latin styles on various Crépuscule releases—several artists sell chanson wholesale. Cathy Claret and Gabrielle Lazure echo rainy days and cafes, while Ludus’s “Nue au Soleil,” originally a hit for Brigitte Bardot in 1970, features more breathy backing vocals than Jane Birkin can stuff between “Je t’aime” and “moi non plus.”
Still, it’s all those Factory-made artists that give the collection its smoky edge, from authentic jeunes filles to gender-benders. The Belgian Zwischenfall enters the fray with the balearic dance single “Flucht ’84,” while Malaria!’s “You You” nips at New Order’s “Blue Monday” with eyeliner-smearing squeals. The dreamy keyboards in “Flucht ’84” can be traced to nostalgic pop hits by Aeroplane and Lindstrøm (maybe the DJs—Belgian and Norwegian, respectively—scored original copies). Thick Pigeon’s rickety “Dog,” an unsettling ode to a severed animal, flits seamlessly between ’80s new wave and the Slits’ slice-and-dice punk.
To Les Filles’s detriment, the compilation’s near-chronological sequencing means there are a few flimsy add-ons. Just as Crépuscule thrived in the early ’80s, the label’s inventive early cuts feel the most vital in retrospect. (Jane Kelly Williams’s “Boy, I’m Just Getting Over You” (1989) is an early snapshot of the Wilson Phillips era.) Among those capturing the zeitgeist is Anna Taylor, who spent her formative years in New York at the tail end of the punk era, where she took the name Anna Domino—Domino, from the formerly Williamsburg, Brooklyn–based sugar company. Her self-titled debut (1986) may’ve been recorded in Belgium with members of the Associates and Telex, but it certainly saw Madonna break through. Domino’s dance-pop single “Take That” is enjoyable late-night fluff that stomps at the chorus with amped-up keyboards and drum pads. “Take it from me / What life doesn’t offer we steal from each other,” she sings. Domino has more recently focused on the bluesy Snakefarm, who show up later on the Filles compilation. She’s one of many repeat performers on the collection—including Antena offshoots Isabelle Antena and the Powaga Sisters—keeping the sorority active.
They were ahead of the game, but where have the cool girls gone? Just like back in the day, they’re hard to spot; they haven’t shed the mystique, but flit from one project to the next. More than anything else, they make it look and sound so easy. Moving beyond Ipanema in 1984, Isabelle Antena’s “Be Pop” showed disco sparkle. “We are listening to different types of music now,” Powaga said at the time. “It seems that everybody else has discovered Getz and Gilberto, and we’ve moved back to stuff like Chic and Sister Sledge.” And moving beyond music, several artists have since taken to film production and artist management, ensuring their place as cool moms to a new generation of artists. To wit: Powaga Sisters close out the collection with “J’aime Regarder les Filles” (“I Like Watching Girls”), a winking cover of the Patrick Coutin hit. A woman knows.
Kate Silver is a Brooklyn-based writer. She breaks out her high school French whenever she can.