Sunday, 27 April 2014

Album review: Piano Ombre - Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains

Record Label: Domino Records

After gaining widespread critical acclaim for their last album, E Volo Love, Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains have returned with a stunning follow-up in Piano Ombre. The first of their albums to be recorded with a professional producer, the album surprisingly doesn't sound too over-produced, as is often the case when musicians hand over the reigns. Instead, the raw beauty of E Volo Love remains. In fact, Piano Ombre is more paired-back than its predecessor, relying more on lead-singer, Frànçois Marry's fragile voice which expresses far more emotion than a sea of instrumentation ever could. 

A group combining musicians from both sides of the Channel, the album has a mixture of French and English lyrics. Surprisingly, this isn't particularly common, as bands trying to break into British or American markets often feel the need to sing completely in English. I was once contacted by a Cuban singer asking for feedback on his music - the americanised style of singing didn't suit the beautifully rich Cuban accent he already possessed; his own language would have utterly transformed his music for the better. In fact, singing in a foreign language can prove to be beneficial when finding a niche in English-speaking countries - to see how, one need only look at the successes of Sigur Rós and Amadou et Mariam in recent years. Refreshingly, the majority of the songs on Piano Ombre are in French. The lilting lyrics add to the sublime majesty of the music; even if not fluent in French, it can be particularly meditative focusing completely on the sounds of the words and how they fit with the flow of instrumentation. However, even when singing in English, the subtleties of  Marry's voice are not lost. It's a testament to his talent as a musician that the transition from French to English is effortless. There's something distinctly French about the minimalism of his music which at the same time is so emotive. Although instrumentally simple, the melodies are consistently strong throughout the entire album. 

The album opens with 'Bois'. Translating as 'wood', the song evokes the starkness of being alone, surrounded by trees, with an expansive sound and haunting vocals. The instrumentation gradually swells, with electronic sounds being added, the grungier of these effects almost making it sound a bit alien, whilst saxophones lend it a jazzy quality. It's an interesting new sound for the band, that works beautifully as an opener, and is heightened by its contrast with the following track. 'La Verite' is the most poppish of the songs on the album, and gloriously so. Recently added to the BBC6 music playlist, its vibrancy suits radio play and its refrain of 'la verité, en verité, en verité, la verité, tu ne la connais pas' is infectiously catchy. 

'La Fille aux Cheveux De Soie' pays homage to Debussy's piece 'La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin', and although it's probably not often that Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains are compared to early 19th century impressionist composers, there are subtle parallels between the two in terms of their sound - the glittering, sensuous piano  in 'La Fille aux Cheveux de Soie' is vaguely reminiscent of Debussy's oeuvre. 'Summer of a Heart' features the afro-beats that were so prevalent in E Volo Love, but the song as a whole has a hazy quality, perfect for the coming summer months, whilst the album's title track is wonderfully melancholic with echoing vocals making for an ethereal sound. 

The serenity of Piano Ombre shows a development in their sound as it has matured. It's an exquisite album, thoughtfully produced to perfection. Although E Volo Love was an equally wonderful album, the band have mellowed their sound since then, and the new style suits them well. With tour dates across Europe over the next few months, Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains' mellow pop is set to soundtrack the summer. 

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