Graded on a Curve: Catherine Ribeiro
+ Alpes,
N°2, Âme Debout, Paix

Formed in 1968 and active throughout the following decade, Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes combined folk, pop, psychedelia, avant-experimentation, and most distinctively of all, powerhouse vocals. With singer Ribeiro and multi-instrumentalist Patrice Moullet the only constant members, beyond the shores of their native France, they have long been a sonic delicacy too seldom heard. Anthology Recordings is doing their best to change that however, reissuing N°2Âme Debout, and Paix, their second, third, and fourth LPs respectively, both singly and as a deluxe, silk-screened box set featuring a book and photos from Ribeiro’s personal collection. It’s a laudable gesture, and it’s in stores September 14.

That N°2 is the second LP by Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes is something of a technical quibble. In 1969, via the French label Festival, there appeared Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis, an LP featuring the vocalist-composer (to call her a singer-songwriter is simply inappropriate) backed by a Patrice Moullet-led band. Searching out the contents of the album (which casual research suggests has never been reissued) reveals it to be a solid and well (if not fully)-formed effort anticipating the sound of Ribeiro + Alpes to come.

Prior to Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis, the singer cut a handful of singles, one for the Portuguese label Estudio and a few for the prominent French imprint Barclay. If you just took a gander at the picture sleeves of those discs, you might get the notion she was one of many chanteuse-style vocalists of the era, but that’s a little off-target, as her work during this mid-’60s period included some Dylan covers, including “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

These singles sit nicely between her eventual work with 2Bis and Alpes, and her earlier activity, which included a major part in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Les Carabiniers. Along with a similarity of vocal tone, that Ribeiro was a film actress prior to becoming a musician intensifies a similarity to Nico, though the comparisons shouldn’t be overstated.

Although she acted in other films, including the ’64 spaghetti western Buffalo Bill, Hero of the Far West, it’s her inclusion in Godard’s stridently anti-war screed of ’63 that coheres Ribeiro’s biography even further. Born in Lyon, France in 1941, she and her Portuguese parents were in the thick of WWII, with Ribeiro’s earliest years spent in dark basements during the bombing raids of Paris. Additionally, her younger brother died as an infant, and later on, she underwent psychiatric treatment.

In some ways, Ribeiro’s musical trajectory is similar to that of Brigette Fontaine, though her voice’s deep timbre does reinforce the Nico comparison. But it should be noted that Ribeiro doesn’t really do alienation, instead fitting into a robust mode of unorthodox poetical protest singing. This aspect strengthens ties to Diamanda Galas to come, but again, this shouldn’t be overemphasized; in many ways, on these three LPs Ribeiro is reminiscent of the young, unjaded Grace Slick, but beautifully French and a helluva lot more adventurous (and unable to be contained by the standards of a mere band).

Really, it’s self-awareness of how attempts at equality in creation were an unsuitable showcase for Ribeiro’s talents that makes these three efforts so rewarding. She and Moullet comprehended this right away with Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis. But it nears the neighborhood of fruition with N°2 and then sharpens and brightens over the course of the following LPs. Overall, N°2 is where she’s most reminiscent of Fontaine (specifically “15 Aout 1970” and parts of “Silen Voy Kathy”), though a connection to the hearty French vocal tradition as embodied by Edith Piaf is also discernible.

Ribeiro is an undeniable presence; if you can’t contend with her, then you can’t contend with these albums. But she’s also not a diva-like spotlight hog. She can step back and let the instrumentation thrive and build psychedelically, knowing that when she comes to the fore, as she does in the excellent, nearly 19-minute “Poème Non Epique,” it will be with maximum wailing, growling (but never uncontrolled, and in a few stretches, a little Patty Waters-like) effectiveness.

Like Catherine Ribeiro + 2Bis, 1970’s N°2 was released by Festival, but by the following year and Âme Debout, she and Moullet had been scooped up by Philips, the new label coinciding with a change in lineup, which makes the heightened intensity of the record all the more impressive. The hugeness of Ribeiro’s pipes in the opening title track are immediately striking, possessing an assured swagger that for non-English speakers, easily transcends language.

Âme Debout is a bit more devoted to songs than its predecessor, but that shouldn’t infer backsliding or a lateral move into relative normalcy. Make that a devotion to songs both vocal and non, with the musicianship tangibly sharper, enough so that non-diva Ribeiro steps aside for some pure instrumental action. Occasionally on the records of others, this sort of deference to cohorts has proved a blunder, but thankfully not here.

If psych-inclined, Alpes (in any of the lineups offered in this set of reissues) is in no way an example of tab-dropping blues-rock hackery. There are elements of prog, notably Patrice Lemoine’s organ, and experimentation to be sure, but also a folky inclination (see closer “Dingue”) and a drifting quality in “Le Kleenex, Le Drap De Lit Et L’Étendard,” that in accord with that organ, suggests that Ribeiro might’ve actually been listening a little bit to Nico. That it’s difficult to decide for sure adds to the track’s appeal and increases the album’s appealing heft.

Instead of faltering into repetitive stylistic patterns, Paix adjusts and integrates new elements, and pulls off a rarity; a third LP that betters it predecessors. They’d released singles before, but opener “Roc Alpin” really connects like one (it did indeed get the 45 treatment) but without even an inkling of bad connotations.

The return of Lemoine helps to deepen the record’s overall instrumental weight, and it’s this element combined with a desire for sheer stretching out, with the title-track nearing 16 minutes and side two’s “Un Jour… La Mort” bypassing 24, that elevates Paix to the cream of Anthology’s substantial crop. That Ribeiro’s creativity flourishes in these longer durations underscores her stature as one of the underground’s finest vocalists. That her work with Alpes is getting some fresh international exposure is an unmitigated plus.

N°2
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Âme Debout
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Paix
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Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes Deluxe Box Set
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