When you walk down the street in Paris, you don't remember individual outfits or the people wearing them, no matter how fabulous. You just think, Parisians ... they look good. The French are fashionable together, appreciating fashion in and of itself. American popular fashion is focused on the individual. It shocks, it titillates, it burglarizes your attention. It is a means to some end: status, attention, advancement.
So it is with music. Take Liz Phair. She looks sexy on the album cover, leering at you from behind her frizzy bangs and the guitar she's got wedged between her legs. The slick, Matrix-produced music sounds fashionable on the first listen. But do you get the feeling that her music or fashion is part of anything grander? What is the album other than an isolated product, a convenient way for Liz Phair to revive her career?
April March's Triggers may appear similarly American on the surface. Yes, she is on the album cover looking ravishing. But it's only her face, and she is not looking at the camera. She doesn't look at the camera in any of the pictures. She looks more sophisticated than sexy. You think only, Where is she from? And where did she get that satin blouse?
The same goes for the music. Triggers introduces itself as slick and conniving. French songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Bertrand Burgulat made this stuff shimmer. It sounds fashionable with its French lyrics, Starsky and Hutch grooves, swirling synths, compressed drums, overdriven bass, bossa nova atmospherics and fructose-laden melodies that burrow into your head like termites.
But March is haute couture, not Entertainment Tonight. Like haute couture, some of the more baroque and bizarre adornments will baffle you, but overall you are changed in some way after the experience. Ex-pat Adam Gopnik, in his smart, whimsical memoir Paris to the Moon, describes the feeling:
Couture is a romantic cartoon. It's a caricature of the romantic impulse, with a cartoon's exaggerations but a cartoon's energy and lighthearted poetry too. The thing you feel in a couture moment isn't 'What a wonderful dress' or, as you do with higher kinds of art, 'What a good place the world is,' but, more simply, 'I'm in love.'
I did not fall in love with Elinore Blake, the real name of the woman behind April March. I did fall in love with the cartoonish, fairy tale world that is Triggers. When you first hear her dry, vibrato-less, aloof delivery, you might feel a crush coming on, like you did with Belinda, Nico, or Astrud. But when the album is finished, you'll just be stunned, wanting to listen again, wondering where else you can find something like it.
This album succeeds for two reasons. The first is March's obvious growth as a singer and songwriter. She is no longer doing repertory. Louis Philippe and Serge Gainsbourg still exert some influence, but she and Burgulat have managed to create their own world. They have also managed, as artists like Beck, Radiohead and Outkast have, to spur this thought immediately after the album finishes: I can't wait to hear what comes next.
The second is the difficulty I had in making comparisons to other artists. I thought of plenty while I listened. The Fender Rhodes electric piano and non-sequitur key changes of "Le Code Rural" made me picture Carole King sitting in with Steely Dan on "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again." The infectious beat and insolent melody of "Coral Bracelet" is as addictive as the best pop song of the late 1990s, the Cardigans' "Lovefool." The lyrics contain the Pollyanna beginnings and cynical, sometimes violent endings of a Flannery O'Connor short story. Burgulat's arrangements recall mid-'90s U.K. acid jazz, 1970s incidental television music, James Bond soundtracks, and Dots and Loops-era Stereolab.
When it came time to write, however, I couldn't in good faith make the comparisons. Something about this album is undeniably April March. You hear elements of everything Blake has ever been involved with: the animation work on Ren and Stimpy, the collaboration with garage-rockers the Shitbirds, the pixiefied Gainsbourgiana, the early demos with Brian Wilson, the childhood in a Francophile New York family.
Elinor Blake and Bertrand Burgulat have created a rich, fantastical, even literary world around April March. Let's hope she develops it further on her next album, and let's hope that happens soon.
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