Some albums just have to be heard to be believed, and Manu Louis‘ Kermesse Machine is one of those records, even if it’s not that this is an album is going to change the world, top end of year best of lists, or end up getting one of those Classic Album retrospective documentaries in 20 years’ time. Although especially lately, stranger things have happened.
The idea of a slightly grizzled Louis discussing the burbling synth sound on Tchouang-Tseu or the way his admiration for the cheese drenched theme tune of Supermarket Sweep inspired the genesis of the album (this is pure supposition), is something that should most definitely occur when 2037 swings around. Sooner might be preferable, because finding out exactly what it is that drives the mechanics within Kermesse Machine will undoubtedly be fascinating. That said, it might also kill some of the magic of a truly peculiar album too.
The charm of Kermesse Machine comes from Louis’ utter disregard for musical genre and his whole-hearted embrace of kitsch. This is a composer who thinks nothing of cramming easy-listening charm up against classical pomp, poptastic hooks, and avant-garde synth experimentation. This is Wagner in clown shoes, Morrissey on a carousel, and John Shuttleworth recognised as Poet Laureate (make it happen). An album as ridiculous as it is serious, Manu Louis has created something that wonky, stupid, and contagious, like a rainbow coloured sweater covered in a retrovirus.
It kicks off with Music From The Hotdog, a song that sounds as if it has been plucked from the concourse of an old circus. Part oompah and European folk, it whirls and stomps with a sense of wide-eyed fun. Then, Louis almost whispers the line “During the day we play the dance music… we produce a groovy background. But here at the fair, everybody knows the real thing happens during the night” and then the song hurtles off into unknown, giving a glimpse behind the clown mask and the idea that behind those brightly coloured lights surrounding the goldfish on the hoopla stand there’s something terrifying lurking. Although this might entirely depends on how you view circuses and fairgrounds. For balance, at the close of the album is Tombola, a song that also embraces that charged up fairground vibe. There’s hints of the Honeymoon Killers’ wonderful Route Nationale 7 here, but also the parping stomp of March Of The Mods (Joe Loss And His Orchestra). Importantly, there’s nothing terrifying, just a sense of ramshackle stomping fun.
It’s this somewhat wobbly, rickety sound that defines the album but there’s also a distinct pop sensibility that bursts forth on songs like Tchouang-Tseu. So whilst it sometimes sounds like this is music made on cheap plastic instruments it barely matters, the desire to cut a rug can still be conjured on a Fisher Price xylophone if the tune demands it, and Louis definitely has a habit of finding the right tune.
When he’s not creating dance tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on a tin-pot version of Eurovision, he’s crooning peculiar little ditties about “a madman on a bike with a trailer” whose life “is riding to strike”. Combining the weirdness of Syd Barrett and the peculiar off-kilter experimental punk of Stump should stick out like a glowing sore thumb, but it fits in just perfectly here. So it’s no surprise to find Playback, a stripped back monologue punctuated only with an occasional bass note and then operatic outbursts nestled alongside the pumping prog-oompah of Sylvie, Reviens.
This then is an album that should fall apart or at the very least, sound like an absolute mess, and yet, somehow Louis funnels all his influences into a series of curious, fun packed balls. That they’re created on what appears to be the cheapest electronic instrumentation available only adds to the charm, and it’s this charm makes this album so special. This then is a curious oddity, but ultimately something of a triumph.