Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Télépopmusik: Genetic World

Musicians often strive for consistency. The great composers of the Classical and Romantic eras created symphonies in which they could explore an idea or theme expressed musically over the course of four movements. Into the twentieth century, American composers such as Aaron Copeland and Duke Ellington created suites like Appalachian Spring and Black, Brown and Beige respectively, to do the same thing in a modern context. Later, jazz greats like Miles Davis put together musically conceptual works like Kind of Blue and the modern pop "concept" album, in which all the songs are of a particular theme or story, came to fruition with Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely.

Then in the sixties, rock groups got into the act and everyone under the age of 30 assumed they had invented it. Groan.

But sometimes, consistency is rejected in favor of chaotic exploration. This can work if the songs complement each other strongly or it can fall apart magnificently. Depending on who you ask, The Beatles' White Album (actually titled The Beatles) succeeds famously or fails grandly. I think it fails but I think it fails fantastically in a blazing fireball of indulgence. That is to say, I like most of the songs on the double album, though not all, and enjoy listening to them, but piecemeal. I don't think the songs work together as well as they do on, say, Revolver and they aren't meant to thematically work together like Rubber Soul (about as perfect an album as The Beatles ever did) but they do work, sporadically. And most of the time, that's fine as long as the songs that work, work well.

Which brings us to Genetic World, the 2001 album of French electronic trip-hop trio Télépopmusik. Ten years after its release it still relies strongly on one half of the album being decidedly better than the other half. The half that works, the half everyone knows, is the half with Scottish folk singer Angela McCluskey. Her vocal stylings, strongly reminiscent of Billie Holiday, work so well with the electronic ambiance and down-tempos of Fabrice Dumont, Stephan Haeri and Christophe Hetier that you don't want them to end. Sadly, they do.

It's not that the dance music contained within the walls of Genetic World is bad but that it is 1) Jarring when following a beautiful piece of longing like Yesterday was a Lie and 2) doesn't hold up to what precedes it. The music of one doesn't compare or complement the other. It's two albums, packed into ten songs (the international version is more expansive with more songs but less impressive) with each style fighting it out with the other. That can be very interesting at times, like the above mentioned Beatles, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney throwing their two distinct styles against each other on every album, but here, the dance music simply can't hold a candle to McCluskey, who not only sings but cowrites most of her songs. And that means that, frankly, the two different styles playing off of each other is less of an interesting thing and more of an annoyance.

The album begins with the song Breathe, and this song, in fact, became their most famous and successful song and still is. You can listen to it and McCluskey's alluring vocals here. Breathe takes the familiar transcendent/electronica tropes (metronomically repeating notes, programmed bass drum, underlying synth sweep) and, with the addition of McCluskey's vocals, turns it into something decidedly more.

Once this ends the album plunges straight into the title track, a bouncy, percussion driven dance number that sounds fine but completely uninspired. This leads into two more McCluskey pieces, Love Can Damage Your Health and Smile that once again lull the listener into a meditative, serene state before breaking in with Dance Me, another uninspired percussion driven dance track. Again, it's not that Dance Me or Genetic World are all that bad, just average and uninspired, which would be fine if we quickly cut back to McCluskey but this time there's no such luck. We're hit with Da Hoola, Let's Go Again and Trishika, a mix of dance, rap and screaming guitar (but not necessarily in that order and not necessarily as interesting as that combo might sound).

At the end of it all, redemption comes in the form of Yesterday was a Lie, again cowritten by McCluskey and a beautiful piece of music. After this, the album winds down with L'Incertitude D'Heisenberg, a full-on trance/electronica orgasm and the perfect ending to the McCluskey music that preceded it. The other music? It belongs on another album and one I wouldn't rush to buy but for most of Genetic World, electronica and old fashioned vocal stylings combine to beautiful effect.