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The Last Assassins


Last Assassins

Spring is late in coming. The sun can do no more than cast exhausted shadows on a row of dreary, blood-red brick facades, deep in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. A deserted garage, a plumber gone out of business... Amidst this string of dying businesses, a gray, steel door opens on to another world. A three-room place that’s really dark and cluttered with electronic instruments and equipment blinking away... And then at the back of the building, another outdoor environment: a narrow strip of undergrowth dotted with large, aging trees, where the earth is soft and fragrant. Here is where the Last Assassins have their refuge.

That afternoon, Jean took out his battered little Gibson. Sitting on tree trunks, Mathieu and Virginia quietly hum a tune that’s simple but sharp.


One of the Last Assassins is Jean Leloup, perpetually busy with custom-made compositions… when he’s not working on projects with friends. An image bank of bitter, grieving characters, often tinged with self-mockery. An awesome, uncompromising work, as all his fans agree.

The two other collaborators are Mathieu Leclerc and Virginia Tangvald. Barely into his thirties, Mathieu is an unobtrusive, longtime collaborator who was already in the background of some of the major hits that made Jean’s reputation, where he was credited with “poetic direction.” In recent years, he’s taken rather an odd step backwards and he’s got the look of someone slowly coming back from it all.

Virginia adds to the mystery. She’s a slim, radiant girl, whose unlikely journey in life might equally have led to the high seas or to inner shipwreck. Beyond her voice, which is true and original, she embodies a totally natural relevance.

Although it’s nothing new for Leloup to escape his multiple namesakes in layers of glory, these days, besides his forays into film, he mostly plays the guitar hero. In fact, it was while composing some music on his six-string for his ambiguous film that he originally sensed the beginnings of a possible album. That was 10 months ago and since then he has encouraged his two collaborators to write and sing without setting any limits. As he explained, “Last summer, starting out with a few tunes, say, two or three guitar riffs, we’d jam for five or six hours, out of which we’d keep the best bits. After a few of these experiments, we felt we’d clicked. Virginia and Mathieu wrote some amazing and powerful lyrics and contributed vocals right on time. After a while, our friends were listening to the trial recordings all the time. So, we thought it’s gotta be some good.”


“Natural” is the agreed motto for this finely honed work. Mathieu Leclerc, an unruly talent who’s paradoxically both prudent and risk-taking, swims against the tide of easy success and endows modesty with an aesthetic dimension. Speaking of the 14 songs on which previously he sang cautiously – even reluctantly – in his nine lives as a cat, he insists on the virtue of being spontaneous but also restrained, as in the old adage: “Never spread yourself too thinly.” As he says, “You soon get to become a bit of a flirt if you just want to make music to please. Today, even the punks are doing exercises in style.” Now, he’s pretty satisfied with the trio’s resilience and their refusal to try to be nice: “I think that as a trio we were able to prevent each other from turning into flirts and we persevered with doing stuff live.” His friends agree. Leloup think a lot of groups “fake it... and are no good because they can’t play together naturally,” adding, “You know it’s working when you're having fun and there’s a real connection.” Virginia concurred, saying, “When you’re trying too hard to avoid mistakes, it’s rare that you can be spontaneous.”


Over the years, Leloup has become quite a formidable guitar player. He’s developed an original, nervy style, intuitively linking up with that brief digression in American history that rocked the sixties, consisting of the Black Panthers, Harlem and Isaac Hayes. A precursor to Power Rock Trio and The Black Keys on their last two, somewhat sloppy albums, the riffs are often fiercely funky. Besides two or three country-folk tracks, and a fabulous nod to the Ventures on Pepito, this energetic and frankly instinctive virtuosity creates a paradox next to the ethereal side of The Last Assassins recent recordings: a little honey but few black and yellow bees... not very far.


Virginia Tangvald, 24, comes from another place. The child of an eccentric family, born on a boat on the Caribbean and raised partly in Toronto, she has a slight accent that’s no way harsh. Where Mathieu writes about indifference and the fragility of words, like prayers from within, as in On The Take: (Don’t think like I used to, Girl you got no home), Virginia, with pretend lightness, sings about departure, loss and absence, turning out her pockets and discovering some cheap trinkets, glass beads and a worn photo of anxious childhood. She admires Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith, grief-stricken but resilient women who face the worst with detachment. But in songs like Dead Birds, what we hear is more the volatile 19th century verse of Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. For her, however, the birds that fall from the sky squawking about imminent resurrection may have been brought down by Chernobyl. “I love anything that can no longer move,” she proclaims. “Birds cover the ground everywhere I go / For a moment I forgot what I was here for / Dead birds, I'll follow you with what's left of me / But how do we know what that will be?”

Last fall, unlike the geese, the Last Assassins migrated to Quebec City for accidental reasons that are almost out of a thriller. The trio set up modestly in the Basse-Ville below. They found their sound and then their particular theory of Newtonian romantic gravity in which every poor apple falls down.

Leave, lose, put down, forget.

It’s been snowing. Virginia has written the classic Winter: “Your steps sank in the snow / I watched a garden die / I watched black birds cross the sky / Broke my heart to see 'em go.” And Matthew has written Rodeo Girl about his urban quest: “Just outside the city / There 's a place where all the ponies go / And there's a chick / Rodeo Girl.”

They shared with each other their deepest, most heartfelt emotions and in the spring they found themselves again. Possibly even in this same sweet-scented undergrowth, where the night casts only fleeting shadows. Leloup takes up his guitar and picks the strings, excusing any wrong notes. Then, you sense the end has silently arrived and everyone goes quietly back to their own place, catching a bite at the corner restaurant and maybe a last drink.

The story’s almost over, though there’s bound to be more to say. But despite what you may think, language not helping much another, there’ll especially be more to listen to.