Niagara: Flammes

Niagara - FlammesSynopsis: Released nine years after their split, Flammes is a greatest-hits package from Niagara, the electronic pop duo described as France’s answer to the Eurythmics. The 2002 14-track collection features videos from their four studio albums, including 1985 debut single “Tchiki Boum”, European hits “Pendant que les champs brûlent” and “J’ai vu”, and their swan song, “Le Minotaure”.

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Niagara: Flammes 8.0

eyelights: Muriel Moreno. the stylistic videos.
eyesores: the DVD’s wonky audio track.

Niagara were a critically and commercially successful French pop-rock duo. Over the course of a decade (from 1984-1993, to be more specific), the group released four studio albums, and scaled the charts in many countries – even non-francophone ones. To this day, they are remembered as one of France’s greatest cross-cultural successes.

Featuring flamboyant singer Muriel Moreno and multi-disciplinarian Daniel Chenevez, the pair were considered by some as the Gallic answer to Eurythmics – even though their only similarity is that the group were principally a male and female duo (there was another band member in the early years). Stylistically, however, they were poles apart.

Starting with 1986’s ‘Encore un dernier baiser’, the eccentric pair morphed from an afro-cuban influenced pop confection, to an acid-rock band, gradually eschewing their lighter side for a more somber presence by the time of 1993’s swan song, ‘La vérité’. Their connecting thread: Moreno’s unusual vocal style and Chenevez penchant for groovy bass lines.

A long-time fan of the band, I first discovered them on the local music video channel one morning, while killing time at a friend’s place, waiting for him to finally wake up. The video was ‘Soleil d’hiver’, and its opening strings hooked me immediately. But, more so, it was the allure of Muriel Moreno, whose flame-red hair and nubile form caught my eye.

(I didn’t know this at the time, but her style was largely inspired by other pop culture icons: for most of Niagara’s career, Moreno took on the allure of a Brigitte Bardot-esque beauty crossed with the fashion sense of Jane Fonda in  ‘Barbarella‘ – hardly an off-putting combination, admittedly, even if it turns out that it’s hardly original.)

Inevitably, I soon picked up their most recent release, 1988’s ‘Quel enfer!’ from my school’s library and proceeded to play it on a loop – it was such a new and unusual sound to me that I couldn’t stop. Niagara were now on my radar, and by the time of 1990’s ‘Religion’, I was a devoted fan – especially since the latter sported an even harder edge,

Niagara released one final album and, although I enjoyed the first two singles, I didn’t much like the rest. I remained a fan, but they disintegrated immediately thereafter, going their separate ways. Still, I continued to listen to them, and, when the compilation ‘Flammes’ came out, I ensured to get the limited edition, which included a bonus CD of remixes.

This DVD compilation of their videos was also released, and I wasted no time getting my hands on it and watching it: directed by Chenevez himself, Niagara’s videos have mostly been visually-compelling works. It became a resident of my DVD player for a while, as I played it in the background while talking on the telephone or whenever I had guests over.

Well-worth multiple viewings, I decided to revisit the set for The Critical Eye; it’s is a band worth discovering, if not rediscovering anew.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Un million d’années: The second hit single from Niagara’s final album, this song features a really nice bass drive, trippy flute solos, and lovely female background vocals. It’s rather infectious, frankly. And it ends with flute and what sounds like tam-tams. Again… trippy stuff.

My first impression, as I watched this video for the first time in ages was just how psychedelic it is, with its kaleidoscopic and CGI backgrounds, and repetitive iconic images. I quite like it. Moreno has black hair, here, and wears a variety of sexy ensembles, including a sheer cat girl outfit, a Barbarella body suit, shorts with breastplate, tights and boots, …etc. Aside from performing solo, she also dances with three other girls. Meanwhile, Chenevez does a few pretentious rock poses, all clad in black, complete with leather wristbands. The bridge section has a strobing effect as they all sway on a dance floor. The video ends with them all sitting around a parking lot campfire. 8.25/8.25

2. J’ai vu: Awesome! The lead single from their third album, it blew us all away when it was released. An angry, political song, it features a gripping, if simplistic, guitar riff over a rhythmic bass-driven track. There is excellent backing from a horn section. It’s funky, but heavy – partly because of Moreno’s vocals.

This abstract video is shot in black and white. Moreno is nonetheless clearly red-headed. She’s wearing arm-length vinyl gloves, a corset, tights, lots of black and moves sexily, just like in “Un million d’années”. There are beneat crotch-level shots of her, as in “Soleil d’hiver”. Adding to the sex appeal are three background singers in leather tops, stockings and thigh-high boots. Chenevez is mostly a secondary figure but, inexplicably, towards the end he saws his guitar with a round saw. 8.0/7.5

3. Pendant que les champs brûlent: This one starts with strings and feedback, followed by a slow groove. It’s not quite a ballad, not really a pop song. It’s a gorgeous, catchy piece. There’s these terrific soul vocals in the background and a lovely guitar solo closing it.

In the video, Moreno is singing from a tree in various Barbarella-style costumes. There are also three backup singers in the tree and Chenevez is seen playing keys there too. Plus there are two kids dressed as angels running in a field. At another point, Moreno is covered in mud, frolicking a little bit. Dang, she’s sexy; she’s posing, but it seems a natural affectation for her. The video ends with the two kids kissing each other. 8.0/8.0

4. Psychotrope: This horns-driven number was in high rotation at the time. I’m not a big fan of it, though, musically or thematically, being a song about chemical drug use. It’s edgy though. If I don’t pay attention to the lyrics, it fills the album nicely.

The video makes me think of a C+C Music Factory video, for some reason (my recollection could be fuzzy after all these years, mind you). The backgrounds, which consist of large clockworks, are black and white, but everyone is lit in monochromatic colours. Moreno’s hair is flaming red and she’s wearing a sporty biker jacket. Wind blows through her hair sexily. Chenevez is dressed in leather pants and a t-shirt with a large star on it. There’s lots of split-screen and, inexplicably, shots of two men boxing. ‘s alright. 6.5/6.5

5. La vie est peut-être belle: Another hit single from their third album, ‘Religion’, this ballad starts with a sweet, soft vocal intro. It’s a gorgeous piece throughout and it ends with a golden touch of strings. Very catchy stuff, even if the theme is a bit depressing.

For the video, Chenevez is all in black with a leather jacket, taking on the slick rock look of the time. Moreno is in a peach (or skin-coloured) bodysuit. Her hair is breathtaking: vibrant and thick – artificial, sure, but amazing to see. For much of the video, she’s in a river. There are shots of skies, birds, water, all super-saturated with colour, as well as inserts of women in white bearing torches or bows and arrows. At one point, Moreno dances in front of a bonfire. It’s a beautiful song and video. Abstract, but interesting.. 8.0/8.0

6. Le minotaure: The band’s swan song, this is all funky bass, tam-tams, and a vocal track that is rap-like. There are also horn solos for the bridge and closing part. I f-ing hate this one; I mean, even the chorus sucks @$$. A friend of mine really liked it back in the day, though, but I can’t stand it.

In the video, Moreno is outside, at a picnic table with a bunch of others. They’re all doing stuff: making food, arts and crafts, reading, …etc. She’s beautiful, dressed as a country girl with long, wavy dark brown hair. She dances/sways on the table towards the end. Damn…. 2.5/7.5

7. Baby Louis: The final single from their second album, this fun, bass-driven rock song starts with an acoustic guitar intro before gearing up. It’s an okay song but the chorus kills it for me. It has its moments, though, and the horns are really catchy.

Amusingly enough, the whole video is blurry, and over-saturated. Many music video channels refused to play it at the time (no doubt to pre-empt the complaints they would likely get). They even asked for a clean version of it, but Chenevez had purposely ensured that there was no going back. In it, Moreno plays an acoustic guitar, dances against a vivid blue sky, sways in a field, in a bright flower garden, …etc. There are also shots of Chenevez playing and of a horn section. 7.0/6.0

8. L’amour à la plage: An afro-cuban pop confection, there’s not much to this song. It’s very much of its time, and it might be a guilty kitschy pleasure for some. Not for me. I could possibly enjoy it more if not for the background vocals: “Ahoooh… Cha-cha-cha!”. Ick. But then it would be a different song.

The video is shot on scratchy Super 8, like an old school home movie. It features an obese family on a trip to the beach, hanging about in the sun. There are shots of Moreno, blonde and a bit plain (but still cute), singing to the camera, as well as shots of Chenevez lip-synching the background vocals. There’s also some young man with huge pompadour hanging about. Not quite sure what the point is, but the video works with the song – and that’s what counts most. 6.5/7.0

9. Soleil d’hiver: A groovy ballad, this one starts with a syrupy synth intro that caught my ear the moment I heard it. It also features a super catchy melody during the chorus, which stuck to the roof of my brain for years. It’s the song that made me take notice of the band and I still love it to this day.

Like many of their videos, this one is slightly surrealistic and very stylistic. It features a red and white motif pretty much throughout. There are poles in the middle of a field, kites, a checkered platform, flags, and flowers (red and white, of course). Moreno is wearing a huge black top hat (Made out of felt? Fur?), and all sorts of fantastic, artsy clothing. This one is notable for the beneath the crotch shot of her, dancing. I couldn’t get that out of my mind then and I still can’t.  8.25/8.25

10. Assez!: The lead single from their smash hit second album, “Assez!” is a rhythmic, groovy rock number that makes you want to move. From Moreno’s opening vocals and the string section intro all the way to the end, it’s quite something. There was nothing like it back in the day.

The video is a widescreen, black and white, Fellini-esque short film, filled with all sorts of unusual characters and classic European architecture. Moreno is wearing a big hat, striped clothing, and moves like Steven Tyler (she was 25 years ahead of Maroon 5!). The bridge has some guy playing steel guitar on a diving board above a pool. It’s an interesting piece. 8.0/8.0

11. Je dois m’en aller: As to be expected with a single from their first album, it’s a very poppy number. This one is synth-based, with prominent bass. It’s catchy, but lightweight.

The video is a ’60s throwback that reminded me of TV studio performances of the era, complete with strange mod sets, weird people, …etc. Moreno changes up between mod and hippy clothing, but there are also nice shots of her, naked from the shoulders up, singing under red bed sheets or in a foamy bath. To me, those are the highlights of the video. Obviously. 6.5/6.75

12. La fin des étoiles: This one has an epic feel to it, opening with background vocals and then strings. It feels like a closing track, and yet it was the third song on their final album. Moreno sings it almost like she was doing a motion picture theme song. I could see this at the closing credits of a movie, actually. Absolutely.

The video has lots of CGI graphics in it – nineties CGI, obviously. The video tries to be as epic as the song, taking Moreno and Chenevez to a purple, flower-covered mountain top (she’s singing, he’s playing the piano). Then she’s in the middle of a snow-covered mountain. I couldn’t keep up with her wardrobe changes, but it’s sexy, Barbarella-inspired, stuff. He’s dressed in his standard leather outfit. Inexplicably, they both get turns shooting fire from their hands. There are also inserts of three long-haired blonde men singing the background vocals – naked from the shoulders up and with their eyes closed. 7.5/7.75

13. Quand la ville dort: The final single from their debut album, this is a catchy pop song. There’s really not much to it, but it’s good for what it is.

The video is slightly fantastical. After the opening feedback, we are offered an obese man playing cello, a man lounging in a half-moon, Moreno in all sorts of outfits and sets (Arab, Egyptian… some too unusual to describe). Chenevez plays the organ, but at one point he’s riffing away on his guitar in a large inflatable Talking Heads suit. Unusual. Original. Worth seeing even if it doesn’t make sense. 7.5/7.75

14. Flammes de l’enfer: The third single from their chart-topping sophomore effort (and the track from which this DVD compilation culls its name), it starts with strings and acoustic guitar. It’s very poppy, but it has a mightily catchy horn section lifting it up. But what really makes it stand out, like much of their output, is Moreno’s distinctive vocal style – much like Gwen Stefani does for No Doubt.

The video is very well-shot, artsy, and… circus-themed: there are acrobats, animals and an audience. Moreno plays many roles in this one, but Chenevez plays a bandleader in a military outfit, conducting his band in a robotic fashion. It may not sound like much, but it’s a pretty video. I quite like it. 8.0/8.25

For some reason, the videos are served up in a non-chronological order, and not even in the same order as the CD compilation. I’m not sure what the method or strategy was here, but it mostly works. The one thing that doesn’t is the DTS audio track, which went out of synch during the band’s oldest videos. When I switched to stereo, this was immediately remedied.

Aside from Niagara’s music videos, this DVD also features ‘Chemin de croix’, a behind-the-scenes film of the band’s final tour (which was released on home video at the time… so more on that at a later date), as well as audio commentaries on two videos, two storyboards, and a short video of Chenevez and Moreno kissing during the shoot for “Pendant que les champs brûlent”.

Honestly, I had forgotten just how magnetic Moreno (née Laporte… she took her name from Marilyn Monroe, just as the band took their name from the Monroe picture) was. I love her voice, her  look, the way she moves, her outfits… pretty much everything about her. Watching this DVD for the first time in years, I sat there spellbound, totally seduced by her.

Sadly, the most vivid memory that remains of her was the last time that I had seen her on television, for an interview at a tour stop-over in Montréal. She was in such a state: worn, detached, looking like heroin junkie. I remember how disappointed and disturbed I was by the sight of her. Could this be the girl we all knew and loved all these years? Or was this her shell?

It’s strange, because there’s a mixture of nostalgia, puppy love and concern when I think of Moreno, who seemed in such poor shape at the end of her run with Niagara and who has mostly pulled away from the limelight since. It’s as though I were looking back at a troubled ex-girlfriend, wishing that I could help her out – but being unable to. Weird, I know, but there it is.

Bottom line is that Niagara will always be dear to my heart. Like The Sisters of Mercy and Love and Rockets, they blazed their own path, had an unconventional form of expression, held on to their integrity and ended it before it all went to hell. No matter what happens, I will always have Niagara. Their music exists forever, untainted by time and/or misplaced ambition.

‘Flammes’ is a reminder of the fires that they stoked during their relatively short, but unforgettable, career.

Post scriptum: After watching this DVD, I felt compelled to re-listen to Niagara’s full discography. Since I only had the albums on cassette, or in ripped format, I made a point of tracking down and buying their four-album boxed set. I eagerly await its arrival, so that I may relive a few of those amazing moments – time and time again.

Date of viewing: March 12, 2014

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