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Having thundered down a decent wodge of the French vernacular while schooling, I’ve a fair hunch at the cut of this record’s cigar-and-monocle jib. I should probably just ask somebody - someone fluent in the language - but to me it seems that for all Ensemble’s musical bombast, the en français grumbles of mainman Olivier Alary are simply paeans to the birds and the trees and ’skies so blue’, et-fucking-cetera. And you might wonder: if that were the case, would it matter?
But hey, let’s cut to the chase: this already feels like the most beautiful and beautifully disjointed album of the year, en français or otherwise. Somehow eluding our keen attentions since its release this January, Excerpts is a work of forgetful minimalism; it is powerfully repetitious - perhaps, in waves, completely random. And while most original reviewers found this idiosyncrasy too off-putting to entertain sustained listening, for me it’s all twined quite delightfully in a quintessential Frenchness, courtesy of close, syrupy-sweet vocals from Darcy Conroy, and entirely tasteful too.
You might’ve come across Olivier Alary already - remixing Bjork singles, at her behest, or as co-writer of Medulla highlight ’Desired Constellation’. Excerpts then, his third record with Ensemble, is the latest in a line of collaborations with Johannes Malfatti - a composer perhaps best known for his work alongside Alary on the Last Train Home film score. Its theme is the hoarding of transient memories and manufactured nostalgia. This is enhanced by a poly-emotive merging of indistinct, overlapping conversations and ethereal, back-of-the-mind production: you could be listening in on someone else’s subconscious. Musical motifs are recycled, giving even the most ephemeral or offhand peculiarity a weightiness by repetition. The hoarded bric-a-brac of the cover photo, in this respect, couldn’t be more pertinent.
...and, eventually, a twisting, distorted nee-naw - one minute and twenty-five seconds that linger far longer...
The record is constantly wrong-footing, in an unsettling kind of way, but alarmingly comfortable with it too. Ethereality, ephemerality, familiarity - all combine to pave a not-remotely-beaten track to a popular destination. The comfort of the familiar. Among this panoply of incomplete sentiments comes ’Envies d’Avalanches’ - it’s a high water-mark; melodic relief after a bombardment of the threshold ’twixt delicacy and discord, harmony and horror. Then Excerpts’ minimal classical strings (think Yann Tiersen, catchier) twine it in a Nordic influence reminiscent of the Erased Tapes roster, soaring over fjords of crashing elegance.
...and incensed static; pelagic drums, driving like drunk maniacs...
But let’s not get bogged down in the powerfully repetitious, non-linear style of the thing: there’s a superb lightness of touch that renders what is essentially an experimental and somewhat unhinged work in a diorama of bright, deep and deeply satisfying colours. That’s well served by vocals, at turns subtly haunting (’Mirages’) and desperately graceful (’Imprints’), that are shared between Alary himself (en français) and Conroy (some English, some en français).
...Mike Hadreas’ revelatory “When I was 16, he jumped off a building,” or...
All this serves a greater good, and that’s a genuine, profound intimacy not heard round these parts since the discreet chinese-whispers of Felix’s You Are the One I Pick. Musical motifs are recycled, giving even the most ephemeral or offhand peculiarity a weightiness by repetition. This crystallises on ’Things I Forget’: like voice-of-Felix Lucinda Chua divulging the revelatory, “If I could hear that guy’s voice off Transworld Sport / And if I hadn’t cheated or lied to coincide with whatever game I was playing... My cat wouldn’t be missing, my kitchen would be gleaming,” on ’What I Learned From TV’, when Conroy sings “They come, they go, things I collect / Gathered en masse, spill from the drawers / Estimating the past,” over Alary’s slight, dazzling chamber-pop furniture, it is a proper moment; tiny, mammoth.
As for wondering whether the ultimate aim of Alary’s en français grumbles is simply to serenade the birds and the trees and skies so fucking blue, and whether that cerebral leave would in fact matter: I’ve asked somebody - someone fluent in the language - and yeah, lyrically it kind of can be about that. But no, it totally doesn’t matter. The meaning’s in the method, the madness: love it or lump it - or just don’t bother with it - but once lived, it refuses to be forgotten.