Montréal native Olivier Alary plainly titles his ongoing musical project Ensemble, but the French-born composer’s second album, Excerpts, tries to steers away from rote genre exercises. His mesmeric and quicksilver flights of fancy take him to frosty chanson francaise, balmy chamber-pop, and ambient, organic electronica. An overarching lyrical thesis — even if shrouded by barriers of language — is that memory is an ephemeral and, thus, a cherished article. This can sound explicitly supercilious on paper, and Alary no doubt knows it.
Instead, Excerpts’ 43-minute, 11-track suite wafts in and out of your headphones (and this is quite a mood-altering experience that way). Its filmic graces brush by Yann Tierson, Clogs’ penchant for experimentation, Stereolab’s less kinetic moments, and Max Richter’s austere splendor. After a scene-setting instrumental, the strings and harpsichord of “Things I Forget” thrum along as spoken word sets a hurried, Richter-esque tableau.
Alary’s choice of a singing partner is pitch-perfect. Darey Conroy puts little to no affectation on her voice and lilts from note to note with the ease of a ballerina. Her vocals often drip with a reverence for nostalgia that pay dividends during patiently composed, lovelorn songs such as “November 22” and “Imprints.” Alary’s gauche approximation of Serge Gainsbourg isn’t quite as mesmerizing, but the percussively colossal “En Attendant L’orage” tiptoes by on the back of collaborator/arranger Johannes Malfatti’s adroit production.
The award-winning film/theatre composer erects and dissipates each facet of the rather tumultuous track with the exacting precision of a brain surgeon listening to a Bach concerto. Such descriptions make Excerpts seem like a detached release, meant only for the dusty and cosseted chamber hall. That’s simply not the case. These tracks are meant to flow out, into an open space, and be shared with like-minded individuals. Headphone records like this one take on a whole new level of detail when cranked up in your living room.
The album’s title track is a model case for such an argument. Imagistic lyrics preface a flurry of railroad car samples and strings. The mood seemingly takes a page from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, where the subjects stands still on a fast-moving train while time and space whirl by them. The composition is a quicksand of sounds and emotions that will enchant and beguile.
As his discography highlights, Alary’s florid technique of preserving the past through music is not done as an island. He collaborated with Lou Barlow and Cat Power on his promising 2006 self-titled LP and even co-wrote tracks with Björk for Medulla. His variegated experiences in museum curatorship, audio-video installations, and feature-length film and documentary soundtracking have also aided him in his interconnected method on Excerpts.
A track such as “Valse Des Objets Trouvés” initially points back to “Things I Forget.” The waltzing string section’s sonic circulatory drives home Alary’s lyrical theme in fascinating ways as it distorts into an almost atonal beast. Memory, and more specifically our memory of music, is rarely a conrete thing. A bit of lovely French spoken word floats into earshot, but the deconstruction of the initial melody mutates into an amorphous, nightmarish thing. Slowly but surely, the dreamy melody returns for the dénouement.
In a similar way, white-noise bookends the ambient-pop of “Imprints.” It’s cinematic in scope and execution and the dark clouds don’t let up. The atonal churnings of “Before Night” are similarly not for the light of heart. There are rare instances when the tracks run away from Alary and dissolve into the ether (“Mirages” and “Envies D’Avalanches”), but some itinerant element usually snaps your attention back to the middle of the widescreen picture. Excerpts’ waves of harmonious (and dissonant) flotsam and jetsam are where its true merits lie.
No doubt, Alary is a master craftsman of slanting your expectations, like an assailer knifing someone in the gut or the smudged recollection of a lover’s declaration of guilt. Michel Gondry’s visual trickery on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a feasible touchstone. Many indie artists reference back to supposedly less chaotic musical styles and times. Excerpts takes it one step further and expects audiences to linger on the great tidal shifts of memory happening in our minds every day. If we manage to lodge ourselves within his cause, Alary has a whole world behind a world to open up to us.