“I never made a record like this before, with a live band in the studio, although I always wanted to do that,” says Louis Philippe. Coming from this golden-French, Renaissance man, a Londoner by choice for the past 34 years, this seems quite surprising.
After all, this key figure of the baroque pop/chamber pop genre spent a good part of his life doing what he wanted, how to produce, write, arrange, play, and sing on countless other people’s records, whether as a producer and composer for the legendary É publisher. Records by Mie Alway or as a contributor to The High Llamas, Towa Tei, Martin Newell, Big Big Train, Testbild !, The Clientele, and Bertrand Burgalat.
Juggling as one of Europe’s most famous and learned football writers, over the past decade Louis Philippe has kept his global community of reverential fans waiting in vain for new music. But we all know what they say about London buses, and Louis Philippe’s music production now seems to follow an equally jerky schedule.
This year has seen the release of The Devil Laughs, his critically acclaimed second collaboration with Stuart Moxham, now followed by Thunderclouds, in which he joins The Night Mail, a trio formed by musician and journalist Robert Rotifer on guitar, DJ, producer and walking pop encyclopedia Andy Lewis on bass and supreme Papernut Cambridge, former member of Thrashing Doves and Death in Vegas Ian Button on drums.
The Night Mail first appeared in 2015 on Carpet Records, with the glamorous cult singer and songwriter John Howard. Last year, they were the main formation of the great return of the Viennese artist/poet/composer André Heller, celebrated by the German-speaking press as an instant classic.
In 2017, at the sold-out two-night party on the Carpet Records at London’s Lexington, The Night Mail performed with Louis Philippe, having played with Robert Forster the night before. “When I played with The Night Mail at The Lexington, I knew right away that I could record an album with them,” says Louis Philippe, “because they were good and fast.”
Ironically, it took three years for the album they agreed to make that night to finally materialize. Louis Philippe and Rotifer have been close friends for many years and, more recently, their shared experience as democratically marginalized spectators of the unrest around Britain’s exit from the EU has brought them even closer. In the end, it was the confluence of this growing crisis with the current pandemic that finally showed that if this record were to happen, it had to happen now.
At the end of the first period of confinement, Rotifer went to see Louis Philippe to review the endless pile of musical demos he had accumulated during his prolonged hiatus.
In early September, the band finally got together for two rehearsals before going to Rimshot Studios in rural Kent to record the base tracks for all thirteen songs on the album, as well as the strings and parts of the trumpet, followed by another session of voices, keyboards, percussion, and a few more guitars, expertly designed by Andy Lewis at Rotifer’s home studio in Canterbury.
The result is an album that evokes the legendary mark of that city’s whimsical progression, as well as Philippe’s deep roots in the art of French music and a shared love for the autumnal side of sunny pop.
Side A opens with “Living on Borrowed Time”, a catchy theme that sounds like a song from a lost film by Lemmy Caution. While the title track of the album hides the anticipation of a storm of Wyattesque chords with jazzy touches that magically rise from the musical noise that emanates from some works of a building next to Louis Philippe’s Shepherd’s Bush house, light waltzes like “Fall in a Daydream” and “Once in a Lifetime of Lies” manage to make London look like Paris, before the closing track” When London Burns “invites the listener to an imaginary dance floor where English speaker Michel Polnareff finds the record.
Among all this, we cross the mysterious aural urban landscapes of “Alphaville”, the wide dynamic range of two music suites, the Tropicália/folk subtlety of “The Mighty Owl”, The surprising gospel rhythms of “Love is the Only Light”, the dramatic catchy “No Sound”, the unexpected Celtic tones of “Do I” and the equally crazy and beautiful semi-instrumental “Willow”.