CATHERINE RIBEIRO + ALPES – Le Rat Dèbile Et L’Homme Des Champs (1974)

Review by: Franco Micale
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Although I like this album, it’s very difficult for me to actually judge it for what it is. The big issue I have is that I don’t speak French, so therefore half the time I have no idea what is going on; a lot of the music here seems to be highly lyrically centered. Also, the production and musical content here leaves much to be desired. Basically, the best way to describe this album is that it’s like a mixture of Renaissance, Can, and Nico, except with a very sparse range of instrumentation. There is also a noticeable lack of drums on this album, and although this sound does make for a fairly unique style, it wouldn’t have hurt to ingrain some more rhythmic textures to the songs. On top of that, the production is rather weak to my ears, as the instruments sound muddled together without any attempt to make the tones or timbres shine out. Also, melodically, few of the songs here really stick to my attention in any way, but I don’t think the band was necessarily aiming to create catchy melodies, so I’ll give them a pass.

However, despite all these flaws, I can’t deny that Catherine Ribeiro totally owns the show here. She displays some of the greatest and most expressive singing I’ve ever heard in rock music. I remember I once made an argument about how good singing in music was just as important as solid songwriting, and I declare this album as definitive proof of how right I was. If someone with a horrible voice had sung any of this, then I guarantee this would have been unlistenable, but this woman really raises this album’s quality from abysmal to highly captivating.

Because of Ribeiro, I can honestly say that the first three songs on this album are actually really great, all else aside. The album hits it off with “La Petite Aux Fraises”, a rushing piece with an intense performance from Catherine and a gripping arrangement, in which all the instruments sound as if they are racing against each other. There is also this jiggly and jostling percussive sound that I can’t quite discern. It sounds similar to the electric jug that would appear on a 13th Floor Elevator song (like on this tune), but I can’t tell. Anyone know?

The next piece, “L’ere De La Putrefaction,” is one of the two lengthy suites on the album, and it definitely has a “thematic” and “epic” feel to it. Even though it feels a little clunky at times (what’s with that gap of silence between the third and fourth movement of the suite?), when the piece gets heated, it’s BURNING. I especially love the last part, where the music gets all intense, Catherine boasts her singing out loud, the organ plays a fiery, Morricone-esque melody, and then they even bring in DRUMS! FRICKIN’ DRUMS! The piece just builds up more and more, the drums start going crazy and banging all over the place, all the instruments start doing random stuff, and then BOOM BOOM BOOM! Everything crashes and ends with a blast. Whoa…the whole thing plays out like a climactic scene in an epic movie, and if the rest of the album was like this, I definitely I would have gushed over this more.

Now, as the individual songs go, my favorite song here is the folky “Un Regard Clair”, if only because of how great Catherine sings on this track. Listen to how she oscillates her voice back and forth, swaying between triumph and despair, as if all the passion swelling within her is about to break her down in tears. And kudos to whoever wrote that concise yet anthemic organ melody that correlates to her singing, as it pushes the piece’s emotional power a few inches further. 

So that’s the first side: Extremely solid. Had that side been released alone, I would have easily given this album an 8/10. But then comes the second side, completely comprised of a 25 minute suite, and from this point on my opinion on the album becomes distorted. Basically, this isn’t so much a song as it is a long-winded poem spoken by Catherine, with the music providing the atmosphere and texture. Now see, it’s difficult for me to judge any of this because, well, I don’t speak French, so therefore I have no idea what the hell is going on. So this means I only have the music to focus on, and frankly, a lot of this is very grating. On one hand, I can admit Catherine really gives a fantastic performance on this track, injecting so much life and personality into the words that she speaks. When I focus on her voice, I find myself really enthralled by the track. On the other hand, the actual music here is very tedious, with no rhythm, structure, or logic to hold anything together. I guess it can be amusing at first, but the end result sounds like an ill-fated cover of The Doors’ “Celebration of the Lizard”. Perhaps once I major in French, I can appreciate this more… but for right now, ehhhh…

So in conclusion, flaws aside, I would say that while this isn’t the most likable album ever made, this is a perfectly enjoyable one if you pay close attention to Ribeiro’s voice, and disregard all of the other flaws surrounding the album. She is able to find all sorts of pitches, moods, and resonances to keep the music engaging. Once you have that in mind, everything else becomes very interesting, as she is able to lead you down this twisted, confused, yet sprawling and ambitious journey. But no matter what, this album is really not easy to swallow, so proceed with caution!

Melody: 2/5 
Resonance: 5/5
Diversity: 1/5 
Adequacy: 1/5
Originality: 3/5

Overall: 6/10