After years monopolizing America’s awareness of French pop, Air was forced in 2004 to share the stage with a couple of their countrymen. And though M83’s breathtaking sophomore effort, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, deserved the recognition it received (and then some), there’s never been a better time to give everyone else under Van Gogh’s sun a shot at their own fifteen minutes. The French quartet Cyann & Ben would certainly like a go at it with its sophomore effort, Happy Like an Autumn Tree.
Before the chorus of “lazy journalism” rains down on my head, I’ll note that M83 and Cyann & Ben share more than a flag. The stateside release of Dead Cities featured a remix of “In Church” by Cyann & Ben — a version that re-imagined M83’s organ-fueled destruction as an acoustic-tinged homage to Nick Drake. And Nicolas Formageau, formerly half of M83, recently lived next door to the group in Paris. And both bands have releases on Gooom Disques. So there.
Still, Cyann & Ben deserve to be considered on their own right, and the bold melancholy of “Circle” and “Summer” doesn’t make it difficult. These tunes, like much of the album, infuse a raw guitar and organ-driven sound with swirling, miasmic synths, biting feedback and de Gaulle-era field recordings. Radiohead, Hood and Sigur Ros are reasonable mile-markers, but Tesla tinkering around with a Steinway, a Telecaster and a shortwave radio on Mars might be a better metaphor for Happy‘s wonderfully inscrutable journey.
The majority of the weirdness, though, is in the instrumentals between the proper tracks, and it’s there that Cyann & Ben doesn’t always please. On the simpering, plodding “Gone to Waste,” vocalist Cyann sounds like Stereolab’s Deidre O’Callaghan moaning over burnt toast, and though “A Moment Nowhere” ends ablaze in harmony and fuzz, it sure takes its sweet time getting there.
If Cyann & Ben can whip out a track like “Obsessing and Screaming Voice in a Shell,” though, we shouldn’t have cause to worry. It may be possible to chock up the pretentious title to a sloppy translation, but the tune’s languid melody, supported by chiming guitar and luscious harmony, is truly inexplicable, running as it does into circles of star-gazing, gut-churning psychadelia. It’s here that the foursome makes its case for a little stateside love on an otherwise inconsistent record, and its here that we should focus our future hopes for Cyann & Ben.