If your French is better than mine, you might understand the words that Stéphane Lafleur is singing. But il ne faut pas que vous parler français to understand what’s going on in Astronomie, the fourth full-length release by Lafleur’s Montreal brush-folk group Avec pas d’casque. The group take their name (literally, With No Helmet) from the rough-and-ready hockey players of the early 1980s who, under a grandfather clause, were allowed to keep playing without a lid after the NHL made helmets mandatory; the last such player retired after the 1996 season.
The stark soundscape that Avec pas d’casque paint in acoustic guitars and lap steel doesn’t so much mirror the fearlessness of Craig MacTavish, but Astronomie is the thin, star-pocked ice upon which the past comes skating. The music is compact, elegant, custom-built to protect memory. Lafleur’s plaintive melodies dot the milky black of his band’s gentle playing, his voice both resonant and fragile, a francophone cousin to Will Oldham. Even at their most upbeat–among the woo-oo-oos and cymbal washes of standout track “La journée qui s’en vient est flambant neuve,” whose title translates as “The Day That Comes is Brand New”–there’s a compelling humility; Avec pas d’casque never seem interested in being anything bolder than four friends strumming along together.
Which, as these things go, completely belies the reality of their popularity. Owing partly to Quebec’s insular tendencies, as well as to the providence of the province’s native music industry, the stars of Montreal’s anglophone scene tend to outshine their francophone neighbors; you’d be forgiven for thinking that there simply isn’t much indie rock made en français in La Belle Province. But Avec pas d’casque are a vital cog in what turns out to be an embarrassingly vibrant francophone indie rock scene in Montreal. 2008’s Dans la nature jusqu’au cou made several critics’ year-end lists, and in 2006 the group were awarded the Prix Miroir for Best Canadian Artist by the Festival d’été de Québec; Astronomie was longlisted for this year’s Polaris Prize. And when the tension that’s built up over the first two and a half minutes of “Veiller le feu” pops into cheering kazoos and trailing snare drums, you’ll be forgiven your mumbling franglais; you can’t help but try to sing along. words/ m garner