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For over 30 years, Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille has recorded some of the most accessible, engaging, and tuneful music ever to fall under the "avant-garde" rubric. His introduction to an international — although cultishly small — listening audience came in the early '80s when he appeared on the debut album by the Rock in Opposition-informed band Débile Menthol; after that group called it a day, Vuille and another Débile Menthol member, Jean-20 Huguenin, formed the amiable but adventurous L'Ensemble Rayé, who would record and perform intermittently into the 21st century. In the mid-2000s, however, Vuille stepped out with his own recording projects, demonstrating his good-natured and far-reaching command of global musical styles and abilities on practically any instrument that could be plucked or strummed — plus clarinet. And as revealed by the liner notes to his 2007 CD, #804 Center Street, Vuille's stylistic mélange was not just a meld of RIO and "world music" currents: he had spent a mid-'70s high-school year in the U.S. Pacific Northwest as an exchange student, soaking up the influences of such West Coast bands as Hot Tuna, It's a Beautiful Day, and Little Feat. What he later did with those influences, however, was entirely his own.
Débile Menthol came along a bit too late for the first wave of the Rock in Opposition, whose charter members (Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Samla Mammas Manna, Stormy Six, and Etron Fou Leloublan) appeared, upon the instigation of Henry Cow, at the first RIO festival in London during 1978. Débile Menthol were not formed until the following year, and their first album, Emile au Jardin Patrologique (recorded in Kirchberg, Switzerland, in October 1981), was the first vinyl LP of the Zurich-based RecRec Music, affiliated with the Recommended Records label founded by Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler as a recording outlet for groups with an RIO sensibility. The nine-piece band — featuring Vuille on guitars, clarinet, and drums — possessed the instrumental skill one might expect from an RIO band, along with a lighthearted attitude (akin to Samla Mammas Manna) that, in Débile Menthol's case, at times suggested an unlikely mashup of Henry Cow and the B-52's. After some lineup changes, Débile Menthol would manage to issue one more album, the punkier and more vocal-oriented Battre Campagne, in 1984 (with Vuille given credit for "air, noise and strings"), before the group folded the following year. Débile Menthol's two albums were later combined in the fine two-CD set Emile à la Campagne, released by RecRec in 1994.
By 1987 Vuille and Huguenin were at the helm of L'Ensemble Rayé, having concluded from their Débile Menthol experience that they would likely be compatible musical partners. Despite this feeling of togetherness, they split the first L'Ensemble Rayé disc, 1990's Même en Hiver/Comme un Pinson Dans l'Eau, into two parts, with Vuille composing and arranging the first ten tracks under the heading Même en Hiver and Huguenin taking on those responsibilities for the remaining six Comme un Pinson Dans l'Eau tracks. Several other musicians (notably Momo Rossel from Débile Menthol and Nimal) assisted here and there across the disc, with Vuille playing guitar, clarinet, ukulele, and more on his short and quirky instrumental tunes that began to display an inimitable approach to worldwide musical styles (including his own brand of "Skaggae") and sometimes zany experimentation. Même en Hiver/Comme un Pinson Dans l'Eau also marked the debut of Tatjana Hauptmann's vibrant, cartoonish, and surrealistic cover art (including the egg-shaped and bespectacled L'Ensemble Rayé mascot, with striped trousers and a guitar neck sprouting from his forehead), well suited to the music within and featured on more Rayé discs in the years to come.
In 1993, L'Ensemble Rayé returned with what many listeners viewed as a creative step forward, Quelques Pièces Détachées, which featured more sophisticated and mature — although no less quirky — compositions influenced by reggae, country, circus music, Gypsy swing, chamber jazz, and more. And while Vuille and Huguenin only appeared together on two of the album's 14 tracks, any thoughts that they were allergic to one another were dispensed with upon the release of 1996's En Frac! — another creative high point for L'Ensemble Rayé — which was recorded live in the studio by a five-piece lineup with Vuille and Huguenin playing together on nearly every track (and also, incidentally, including Momo Rossel as a full-fledged bandmember). Eastern European-influenced folk-jazz, brass band music, avant-prog rock, and even surf guitar were stirred into the mix on an album that — minus any studio effects whatsoever — proved once and for all that Vuille and his bandmates were consummate musicians in real time.
Vuille and Huguenin next appeared on the 1998 duet recording Un Royaume, une Espece de Vide — the first album to appear on the label Les Disques Rayés — and returned to the L'Ensemble Rayé fold with the 1999 Winnie the Pooh-themed children's album Ein Fest für Pu den Bären, perhaps not aimed at sophisticated avant-leaning adult listeners but not entirely bereft of the band's quirky sense of adventure. And in fact, Ein Fest für Pu den Bären revealed that Vuille was now exploring a wider range of instruments than before — he was credited with cuatro, kalimba, melodica, ocarina, and theremin in addition to his customary guitars, ukulele, clarinet, and bass. Into the 21st century, L'Ensemble Rayé returned with 2001's Vis-à-Vis Movers Dance Company, consisting of music commissioned for a contemporary dance performance premiered in Zurich that year — Vuille appeared on guitar and ukulele but composed none of the album's 13 tracks. Les Contrepoint Cardinaux followed in 2002, and again featured Vuille plucking and strumming away on a wide variety of global folky instrumentation. The next L'Ensemble Rayé collection, 2005's two-disc Theatre de la Poudrière, would compile 41 tracks composed as accompaniment to theater and contemporary dance productions dating back to 1987, but meanwhile, Vuille had already stepped out with his own solo recorded debut, Des Pas Rayés, in 2004.
As one might expect given some of his most recent work with L'Ensemble Rayé, Des Pas Rayés (like all of Vuille's subsequent recordings, released on Les Disques Rayés) featured Vuille on guitar, bass, ukulele, clarinet, cuatro, spoons, theremin, melodica, ocarina, keyboards, bird calls, voice, and percussion, joined by Rayé members guitarist/keyboardist Julien Baillod and drummer Daniel Spahni and others — with Huguenin playing tenor guitar on only one track. Vuille's love of ska and reggae was displayed by such aptly named tracks as "Skaroll," "Polkaggae," and "Skanimé," and elsewhere his anything-goes musical world-view was reflected by tracks like "Caramba!" and "Klezmer Spaghetti."
Up to now, '70s American West Coast rock might have seemed at most a somewhat peripheral influence on Vuille, whose Euro-RIO stance combined with a globe-trotting world music sensibility did not necessarily conjure up thoughts of the aforementioned Hot Tuna et al. Perhaps his juxtaposition of twangy, reverby, or burning electric guitar licks with charming multi-tracked clarinet melodies might have disguised the music's country roots for some listeners. In any case, 2007 sophomore outing #804 Center Street — fashioned as a sort of aural travelogue harking back to his time as an exchange student in Oregon City, Oregon — drew from California blues-, folk-, and country-rock more explicitly than anything Vuille had recorded previously, and made it possible to hear his music with new ears. However, Vuille's characteristic styles of composing, arranging, playing, and recording made the album far from a slavishly retro nostalgia trip, as concise tunefulness mixed with ambient atmospheres; travel sounds bridged the musical interludes; and sitar, theremin, and E-bow joined with guitar, ukulele, and banjo in freshly imagined and uncanny instrumental combinations.
In 2008, upon the suggestion of Israeli studio wiz Udi Koomran, Vuille attended a show in Geneva by Colorado avant-proggers Thinking Plague, with the intention of meeting Thinking Plague bassist — and Hamster Theatre leader — Dave Willey and Plague vocalist Elaine di Falco. Koomran, who has mixed a number of the 21st century's most noteworthy avant-prog albums, perceived a musical compatibility between Vuille, Willey, and di Falco, and after meeting in Geneva the three agreed to begin a long-distance recording project via the Internet. As Vuille began his collaboration with Willey and di Falco, he also enlisted Willey to play a bit of accordion on Faire, his third solo CD. A set of 15 instrumental miniatures featuring Vuille multi-tracked on ukulele, guitar, clarinet, cuatro, banjolele, bass, ocarina, bantar, sitar, kalimba, keyboards, and percussion, the 2010 CD was a worthy follow-up to #804 Center Street and — absent that album's unifying West Coast theme — allowed Vuille to follow his muse wherever it would take him. Crisp, clear, and charming, Faire demonstrated that Vuille's talents were still at a peak — as did the di Falco/Vuille/Willey CD, Send Me a Postcard, when it arrived the following year. Di Falco, Vuille, and Willey had adopted the moniker 3 Mice for their truly collaborative and egalitarian project hatched in Geneva back in 2008, and 2011's Send Me a Postcard presented all three musicians (not to mention Koomran, responsible for mixing, mastering, and "sound dialing wizardry") at their best as skilled composers and multi-instrumentalists. And with its 12 brief tunes, international musical perspective touching on Caribbean, Latin, and Celtic traditions (among others), and diverse, sparkling instrumentation, the sonic imprint of Cédric Vuille was unmistakable.