Years ago, while I was living in Paris (more Fodor’s than Hemingway or Henry Miller, believe me) I searched for online outlets that would allow me to maintain my appetite for new music and practice French at the same time. Surfing late nights on my neighbor Jenny's wi-fi (that's "WEE-FEE" in French), I stumbled across one too many electro-house sites or French indie rock bands that, for obvious marketing and exposure reasons, sang in pigeon English. Had they not learned from Dungen or Malajube that Americans dig native tongues? At any rate, the search felt futile until I finally made my way to a site called La Blogotheque. With its musical tastes entrenched in Pitchfork "discoveries," contemporary French folk singers, and an occasional curveball, the site felt more homemade and inviting than everything else I'd previously explored. They also had a little side project where they'd film impromptu concerts in some poorly lit Parisian bar. Now two years old, "The Take-Away Shows" or "Concerts à Emporter," have become a rite of passage for American bands going through Paris. But what's more interesting is how increasingly elaborate the filming has become. No longer pitted against some static backdrop, bands now march across the city with instruments in tow, or play outside on apartment balconies. But while La Blogotheque has expanded the scope of its videography, the handful of imitators trying to cash in on the craze still have some catching up to do.
La Blogotheque's newest video is also their 95th. In this five-part episode they follow Philadelphia's Man Man through its warmups to the end of its concert, at which point the band leads all the concertgoers out into the rainy streets like the pied piper. Frontman Honus Honus jumps on top of a trashcan and motions everyone to form a doo-wop circle. The most satisfying aspect of the "Take-Away Show" is this kind of spontaneous decision-making. When the cameras are rolling, the surroundings, the bystanders, and of course the musicians take control of the video's direction. The réalisateur, Vincent Moon, leaves the outcome up to its elements—it’s guerilla filmmaking at its purest.
But more recently these organic takes have been sidestepped for more calculated performances, and the results feel surprisingly natural. The most charming segment of the Man Man lot takes place in a barbershop. The boys harmonize and add some percussion while one band member receives a trim. It's partially staged and Moon has time to establish the shot, panning up from a bob of hair to the band surrounding the coiffeur's chair. The video strays from Moon's usual black and white, German-Expressionism-loving sequences in which he attempts to personify the handheld camera. And it's all the better for it.
La Blogotheque's artistic creativity reached its peak at the release of Beirut's The Flying Club Cup. If you don't already know, the French go bonkers for Zach Condon and his cultured, European romanticism, partly because he does a pretty fine Jacques Brel cover. Condon and La Blogotheque's relationship grew so tight that upon the release of the second Beirut album, they filmed a video segment for every song and released the whole project as a standalone DVD. The scenes were fairly epic as the video team mixed shots from abandoned buildings in Brooklyn and group sing a longs in Paris. It was this bonding that helped convince people that there was an audience for "natural-performance" music videos.
The two most prominent counterparts to La Blogotheque are Handheld Shows, a small-scale Norwegian music blog, and Black Cab Sessions based out of London. The two production teams have a slight artist overlap. Bands like Black Lips and Man Man appear on most of these sites because they seriously don't stop touring. But it's the dogma behind these two sites that casts them in the Frenchies' shadow.
Simply put, Black Cab Sessions is more Cash Cab than music video. Artists are constrained to the backseat of the familiar hearse-like vehicle, and the faces of the musicians look obtuse and their bodies somewhat contorted because, well, they're squished in a goddamn car. And really that's it. Occasionally the rain trickling down the windows produces some interesting visual effects, but it mostly just reminds you that they're driving around London with its shitty weather. I'll admit there is an element of adversity with the occasional road bump and the constant movement, especially during the episode when Jonny Byers enters the cab with his baroque cello. Still, the video is completely reliant on the artist. There is no room for greater artistic exploration. Sometimes this method produces some stark, interesting performances—like Daniel Johnston singing a song he wrote in 1980, shakily holding the lyrics up to his eyes. But mainly, the videos don't have the freedom to be more dynamic. And that's a conceptual drawback.
Handheld Shows is more like a low-budget Take Away Show. There is not nearly as much play on light and darkness or video filtering. Bands are filmed playing in public settings and the camera drifts to show viewers faces absorbing the music. In one episode, the Gothenburg band Love is All performs in a train station. The camera focuses on one little girl as she watches lead singer Josephine Olausson play the keyboard. The video of St. Vincent playing in a trailer alongside an unnamed body of water is similarly simple and concentrated on the music. But the concept nevertheless feels too safe. There is no sense of danger or the potential for mishaps, as if they don't realize that the mishaps are what viewers usually savor in these videos.
So far, these three sites that, along with Pitchfork TV, are pioneering online music video are implementing different methods to meet their wishes. And it seems just as with early cinema (most would argue), the French are the most adventurous of the bunch. La Blogotheque realizes that the music will always attract an audience. But it's the audience and the spontaneity that it provides that really makes a concert special. When Man Man blisters through "Black Mission Goggles" in Belleville, the song sounds great as it is, but the whole experience is heightened with the supplemental banging by kids on roller blades who have no idea what's happening. Who knows, maybe French people are more accustomed to street performances and thus react to them more interestingly. Whatever the reason, La Blogotheque is a step ahead of the game. But it's a game that has really just begun and has an unbelievable amount of room to grow. That is unless you're in the Black Cab, where you really only have a couple inches of headroom.