As a rabid devotee to the music of '80s Minneapolis, I'm not sure how it took me so long to acquaint myself with Têtes Noires. Thankfully, writer Jim DeRogatis endorsed them on Sound Opinions, and I've been enjoying Têtes Noires ever since.
"Têtes noires" is French for "black heads," named for the band's hair color, and they released three indie-label studio albums over five years of touring*. Their second album, American Dream*, was recently remixed and reissued as The New American Dream, and I can't get enough of it. Years before anyone was called a riot grrrl, this irreverent sextet was reimagining punk rock (new wave? folk rock? help) with keyboards, violin, non-drum kit percussion, acoustic guitars, hand claps and up to six-part harmonies. The music is often upbeat, sung in cheerful voices locked in skintight harmonies graced by brash, subversive lyrics.
It's rare to hear authentic punk music that you could put on a mix tape for your parents, which makes The New American Dream more dangerous than your brother's hardcore. Têtes Noires is the kind of band that can charm you into lowering your guard before landing one upside your head ("Recipe for Love," "Pretty Boy,") in a good way. The social commentary is sharp without being preachy, and relevant 30 years on ("Peace, Piece by Piece," "American Dream,") while the musicianship sounds tight but uninhibited. As songs like "True Love," "Moonie" and "Family Ties" earworm their way through me for hours on end while I struggle to catch up to them, I'm reminded of Ralph Ellison's quote about masking in Shadow and Act.
"It is in the American grain. Benjamin Franklin, the practical scientist, skilled statesman and sophisticated lover, allowed the French to mistake him for Rousseau’s Natural Man. Hemingway poses as a non-literary sportsman, Faulkner a farmer; Abe Lincoln allowed himself to be taken for a simple country lawyer—until the chips were down. America is a land of masking jokers. We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past. In short, the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals."
*Apparently their boisterous shows would sometime include a cover of Motörhead's "We Are the Road Crew". If anyone has a
recording of this, please send it to me.
*Released in 1984, the same year as Purple Rain, Zen Arcade and Let It Be. What was in the Minneapolis water?