Introducing L'Ensemble Rayé, the band. En Frac! may be the third disc by L'Ensemble Rayé, but it almost feels like a debut release coming after the first two albums, Même en Hiver/Comme un Pinson Dans l'Eau and Quelques Pièces Detachées, which featured music composed mainly by guitarist Jean 20 Huguenin and guitarist/clarinetist Cédric Vuille performed by lineups that varied from track to track. Huguenin and Vuille are present here, of course, but now function as two members in a truly collaborative quintet characterized by more or less equal input from everyone. Reedman Pierre Kaufmann contributes lovely alto sax and clarinet work, continuing and deepening the jazzy elements he first introduced on Quelques Pièces Detachées. Newcomer Shirley Anne Hofmann, an expatriate Canadian combining a quirky avant pop sensibility with serious brass band chops on euphonium, trombone, and tuba, is a welcome addition. And Momo Rossel, former leader of Nimal (a band to which all four of the other musicians on En Frac! contributed at one time or another), is here to display his skills on whatever instrument seems to strike his fancy: accordion, electric guitar, bass, and violin. Rossel had performed on scattered tracks and served as recording engineer on the first two L'Ensemble Rayé discs, but this is the first time he appears as a full-fledged bandmember. Given the decision to record live in the studio minus even the subtle sonic manipulations of the first two discs, there is nothing to distract the listener from the musicians' skills as players, writers (everyone composed at least one track), and collaborators in creating an engaging group sound. L'Ensemble Rayé still draws on diverse stylistic influences -- including Eastern European folk-jazz, circus music, fingerpicked guitar, and avant-prog rock -- but both the live recording approach and the instruments themselves result in music that is both warmer and more immediate than either of the two previous releases. Hofmann's low brasses join together with the reeds of Kaufmann and Vuille to create subtly beautiful harmonies and timbres over the sure and steady pulse of bass and/or guitar; Huguenin's tenor guitar is particularly effective as both chordal instrument and timekeeper, and the complete absence of drums throughout the album (another first for L'Ensemble Rayé) is never missed. With the accordion (played by both Rossel and Hofmann) prominent on many of the tunes, the music often has a distinctly Eastern European and Gypsy feel akin to Nimal, although less rockish ("Eine Schöne Reise" sounds like a Gypsy Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the album-closing "Qui S'y Frotte...," penned by Rossel, features the sort of shifting folk dance rhythm that Nimal handled so well). Some of the best tracks -- "Valse des Chats," "Cloche-Pied," and "P'tit Pierre," for example -- incorporate propulsive vamps as the foundation for beautiful folk-jazz and brass band-style arrangements (and even a bit of surf guitar from Vuille on "P'tit Pierre"). In the album's only live concert recording, Huguenin revisits his folk guitar showcase "Rag'n Râle" (from Quelques Pièces Detachées) with even greater forcefulness and stunning precision, while Hofmann adds a dose of vocal quirkiness with the carnival sideshow barker routine of "Bratko-Toffel," which first appeared on From the Depths, her solo LP from the preceding year. With En Frac!, L'Ensemble Rayé entered a new phase as a creative vehicle for all their members rather than an outlet mainly for Huguenin and Vuille. And without a single overdub or studio trick, the musicians here joined together to create an album that remains a highlight, if not the highlight, of L'Ensemble Rayé's impressive recording career.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Lynch