Gabriel Yacoub began his career singing and playing guitar in Alan Stivell’s band, before going on to form the legendary French Renaissance rock band Malicorne. Malicorne’s compilation CD Légende: Deuxieme Epoque exceeds the quality of any of the similar compilations from their English contemporaries Steeleye Span, and is on a comparable level with the best output from Fairport Convention. Malicorne split up twenty years ago, and I hadn’t heard any of Yacoub’s subsequent solo material until I recently got the chance to listen to 2002’s The Simple Things We Said. This album combines new songs with reworked versions of some older songs, with the specific intent of cracking the American world music market.
A couple of things have changed in Yacoub’s music since his Malicorne days. For one thing, while most of the songs on The Simple Things We Said are sung in French, Yacoub also sings in English on a couple of songs. The title song is an anglicized version of an older song of his called “Les Choses Les Plus Simple.” He wrote a short English song “Letter From America” for the album, and does a chilling cover of the song “You Stay Here” from one of his favorite English-speaking songwriters, Richard Shindell. Most of the music on this CD falls into the category of straightforward acoustic folk, as opposed to the Medieval and rock ends of Malicorne’s musical spectrum. A greater focus is placed on Yacoub’s guitar playing, which has improved significantly over the years. A couple of songs do echo Yacoub’s past though, most notably the a capella “Ami: Âme: Amen (Friend: Spirit: Amen),” a song reflecting on a nightmarish summer when three close friends of Yacoub’s passed away, and “Désir,” which features a dueling guitar from Nicolaïvan Mignot and backing vocals from Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
Yacoub has also successfully made the transition from performing mostly traditional material to writing most of the songs on this disc. Most of Yacoub’s songs, including the title song, are love songs, usually tinged with a hint of melancholy and some indication that the romance has not survived. The lyrical themes diversify in the second half of the disc, though. “Ces Dieux-Là (These Gods)” reads a lot like John Lennon’s song “God,” except that Yacoub’s list of things he does believe in is substantially longer and the chorus is very catchy and singable even to non-native speakers like me. On “Beauté/12th Song of the Thunder,” Yacoub very successfully adapts two pieces of poetry from a Navajo ritual.
A couple of facets of Yacoub’s music have remained constant over time, though. For one thing, the passing years since Malicorne have been mercifully kind to Yacoub’s voice. It remains very distinct and recognizable, and if anything, has matured and gained in character. Most importantly, The Simple Things We Said shows that Gabriel Yacoub remains an intriguing and compelling performer, full of creative musical ideas and still perfectly capable of turning the ideas into first-rate music.