L'oiseau magnifique (The Magnificent Bird) is a clever new album by a trio named Alice. Alice uses harmonic vocals and an electronic keyboard to create spare, folk-inspired contemporary feminist song-poems. The group, from Geneva, Switzerland, play on traditions from French and Occitan music to invent tunes about love, magic birds, trees and, amusingly, a really bad party. Formed in 2018, Alice is composed of mother/daughter artists Lisa Harder, Yvonne Harder, and fellow artist Sarah André.
The PR for the trio enchantingly describes Alice as employing “a thrift-store synth, bizarre wit and arresting vocals” and pronounces them an “intergenerational, all-female micro-choir.” I might just say trio, but micro-choir has a certain cachet. More or less, I’m in agreement. L’oiseau magnifique is fresh and fun, with enough grit and weirdness to be reflective of the challenging now. Being too joyful and unapologetically fun would lack empathy, and not really echo the zeitgeist of the moment.
I think this is all considerably more enjoyable for francophone audiences- the lyrics, word play, puns, all matter here. It’s worth digging up a translation if you don’t have a working grasp of French. The lyrics are succinct, sharp, funny. For instance: the song “Tout ce boulot” plays with the identical pronunciation of the words bulot (work) and bouleau (Birch trees) to create a song, which, they say, “we leave to the taste of the beholder if we are talking about god and creation, or about gardening design.”
The vocals and harmonies are assured with a nice mixture of the seemingly spontaneous and the complex. It feels fresh and on target, music for this strange post-pandemic world of micro detail focus as big-picture events swirl dizzyingly all around us. It’s like we are trying to normalize the upheaval with the banal, and that is what Alice plays with, deliberately eschewing the roles of professional musicians and performers by adopting a position of singing to the moment with home-made gusto. The trio sings and circles back in a way that can only happen through really being in sync, so they may be playing at echoing amateur musicality, but it is a just that, a game.
This approach is carried to the nth degree, which I respect, but the keyboard music is where I get a bit nervous. It is very simple. I’m not sure if I want to say child-like or the more pejorative childish. For me it’s the weak spot in the album, I would have preferred more musical nuance and range. The singing has real magic to it to it and this draws further attention to the amateur quality of the melodies, making them grate a bit. That this looks to be strategic, or a stylistic choice, gives me further pause.
The video for “La Fete Nulle” features a casually strewn (read: messy) table with the keyboard on it, the three performers awkwardly sitting closely together with what looks like packing tape distorting their features. Is this a comment on lockdown isolation? Plastic surgery gone wrong? A very effective home-brewed strategy to avoid objectification? It gives the video the feel of a very casual impromptu puppet show.
It’s my favorite track, a circular lament about a really bad party- prodigiously bad in fact. It’s very funny, sung very earnestly and reminds me of being dragged as a kid to events I didn’t want to go to but couldn’t leave. There really are not enough songs out there about mandatory social events and the elaborate societal mores that require us to tolerate allegedly fun gatherings when we would rather be elsewhere.
I’m reminded of Eric Satie tunes, of little glimpses into daily life, of bored children on car trips, of passing time with home-made fun: games, laughing, singing and complaining. It reminds me of how Alice in Wonderland begins, with Alice becoming sleepy and bored by the side of a river as her sister reads a book with no pictures. She then, of course, dreams a picture-filled world of inversions, puzzles, and twisted logic. Like Alice in Wonderland, L’oiseau magnifique very much plays with the rules and norms of things in the world. It is also seriously reassuring; a reminder of some of the best bits about being human: sharing, inventing, participating creatively together. It is defiantly not about showboating, which can also be taken as a more feminist, collaborative approach to music-making. The aspect of virtuosity being tamped down in favor of an apparently off-the-cuff musical jam session, in keeping with folk traditions and a house-concert ethos.
I am pretty sure live concerts are the best way to appreciate Alice. The band have commented on the importance of the audience’s emotional responses as being an integral part of the experience. The whole project echoes the aesthetic described in Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk the last short story written by Franz Kafka, about a singing diva whose talent is that she vocally expresses the hopes and anxieties of her people. The story is about the possibility of art to translate individual feeling into the collective realm, and, published in 1924, it is hard not to see the mouse people as a metaphor for deeply oppressed people living in stressful circumstances, under fascism, actively aware that things will worsen. They live in fear yet look for hope and joy and Josephine draws them together not through the technical excellence of her voice but through her fragility and vulnerability. She sings for them all and her art is the moment of optimism she delivers through the experience of the everyone deep listening and swaying to the sounds of their existential predicament, a state of being they cannot otherwise verbalize. It’s a major work disguised as a short story about a theatrical rodent, which very much feels like what is being attempted here.
L’oiseau magnifique thoughtfully gives us music for this moment, as we try to reconnect, find delight, poke at, critique and ponder this strange, pandemically morphed fascist-leaning world. I, for one, am wishing they come my way on tour soon. I could use a bit of a laugh/cry with some singing. In the meantime. I have the album to enchant and reassure me with its odd lullabies.