You’ve got to be curious about Alice, the off-kilter Genevan trio formed by mother/ daughter/visual artist pairing Yvonne and Lisa Harder with their friend, graphic novelist Sarah Andre. Self-styled as a DIY micro chorale, their three voices and second hand keyboards conjure up songs that sneak way beyond any Occitan/French folky starting point. For sure the unpolished home spun harmonies are central to Alice’s musical personality but there’s plenty of spikey art-punk spirit scratching below the surface. Their music is in no way twee, it’s defiantly naïve, often nuanced, sometimes sparky and definitely unique.
Formed in 2018 as a performance project for their home city’s Deviant Art Festival, the three artists soon self-assembled the ‘Alice Partout’ cassette, their first playfully inventive Alice statement. Now their fabulously lo-fi mix of wit, charm and magic has been picked up by the ever in touch Bongo Joe Records and voila, on March 3rd, the second Alice album, L’Oiseau Magnifique lands on the shelves.
Not that the ‘step up’ has diluted Alice’s spontaneity or smoothed their edges. The new album presents as a busy collage of mini songs and snippets, a giddy 23 short tracks which tell stories from the bits and pieces of their everyday, the weather, posing car drivers and dull parties. It has the feel of a diary or sketch book, packed with ideas and observations, a flick through the impressions of Alice’s year which proves both fascinating and touching.
At its heart is the simple joy of shared singing and harmonising. Listen to the tingling clarity of their voices on Que Coule L’eau or the lullaby lilt of Le bébé and Alice’s soothing layers soon wrap you up. There’s something naturally appealing in these almost folky tunes, the way the three singers begin in unison then peel gently away from each other. Not that Alice are working under strict traditional guidelines here. Because their music does what they feel works, there are always twists and tweaks. Triste et tout seul romps along at part playground /part cheerleader pace while the more melancholy Le clown pirouettes slowly between the trio’s voices as the music box keys and melodic sadness swells.
There’s also something uncannily visual about these Alice songs. Les Oiseaux (Birds), where the singing swoops from a restful stillness to scattered flighty phrases, is wonderfully vivid. Its companion bird piece, Un oiseau magnifique, is similarly sensory, all tempo shifts, arcing blue notes plus snippets of whistle and melodeon, magnifique in under three minutes. Such intricate additions of the finest details may be used sparingly throughout the record but they always make an impact. On Nous marchons the steady trek that the song follows is made more real by the deft sound additions, the chink of chains, the watery drips, the wildlife…the more you wander through this album the more pictorial its effect.
At times a darker more abstract atmosphere drifts across L’Oiseau Manifique, quietly changing the dynamic. There’s a hymnal, early music vibe to the sombre Petit et gris and Jesus Christ while the lapping, lower register Le caillou shifts spookily from innocent rhyme to more sorrowful sounds. But clearly Alice are not focused on doom folk, they make music of the world around them, of small figures in the daily sprawl. As well as songs about birds and walks, rocks and water theirs is a place of Deux mille trains and the motor car, which they dismantle with a sharp irony. In La Santé, Alice reflect sneakily on healthy life styles to the swish of passing traffic and a resigned ‘toot,toot,toot’ hook while La décapotable (the convertible) gets more aggressive. Pumping along to Riot grrrl beat, the band jibe at the emptiness of highway cruising with a bite that takes you right back to those gritty Spizz/Spizz oil efforts.
That canny use of their keyboard drum track also features in the pop toned Pense à moi, a pleading eighties-tinged, electro number complete with lo-fi dancefloor break to back the vocal finger pointing. This tune along with others like La fête nulle highlight that Alice deal very much with the personal, sometimes wearily and at others bursting with frustration. L’Oisseau magnifique is in no way a comedy record. Yes there is laughter, false starts and mistakes, that’s fittingly how the record finishes, but as Yvonne Harder says “We often laugh or cry ourselves while singing. It’s not a stance – it’s the real real thing.”
There’s an affinity to great outsider music woven into Alice’s sound (think maybe Ivor Cutler, The Raincoats, Vashti Bunyan, even Robert Wyatt). Minimal yes, possibly difficult to grasp, infuriatingly brief at times but never ever dull. L’Oiseau magnifique is one of a kind, unfathomably addictive and, most importantly, completely genuine.
Get your copy of L’Oiseau by Alice from your local record store now or direct from Bandcamp