Invasion of the Euro-Troubadours
Four great albums from France and Scandinavia get belated U.S. releases.
Camille Le Fil
Camille Dalmais is a French singer-songwriter whose great second album, Le Fil ("The Thread"), has been in heavy rotation on my stereo for several months. (It's available only on import now but will get a stateside release in June.) The title refers to a ghostly vocal drone—on a single note, B natural—that is woven through the album, appearing in every track. In what is either Camille's crowning moment of cheek or her most indulgent artsy-fartsy move, the drone continues for a full 35 minutes at the conclusion of the final song—a bonus ambient soundtrack for all the yogis in the audience.
Le Fil has gone platinum in France, where Camille has frequently been likened to Björk. There's something to the comparison. She's got a similarly ravenous appetite for sonic adventure, and Le Fil is just as exciting an experiment in the symphonic overdubbing of vocal tracks as Björk's Medulla. Camille sings every note on Le Fil, yammering, scatting, beat-boxing, and doing just about every other kind of vocalizing in 15 catchy songs that range from choral art-pop to beat-driven dance music to nouveau-retro chanson. And always, there is that drone, which seems to change color depending on the musical setting, variously signaling disquiet, rapture, sadness, resignation, and, above all, a kind of bravado: the "check me out" hauteur of an artist who knows she's pulled off a tour de force.
Ane Brun A Temporary Dive
"My friend/ You left me in the end/ I can't believe I'm writing a song/ Where friend rhymes with end," sings Ane Brun on her new album. Brun, from Norway, likes singing songs about singing songs. In "Song No. 6," a duet with Ron Sexsmith, she croons: "It would be so easy/ To sing a sobby pink song about you/ I would spend three or four lines/ On describing your eyes." That tune has a rackety, lurching chorus, with hooting background vocals and little blasts of guitar feedback. But most of A Temporary Dive is hushed, with Brun's sad, pretty voice drifting over fingerpicked minor chords and lap steel guitar lines. It's gorgeous, chilly music—a soundtrack for sad days beneath wind-picked winter skies—and Brun's tales of loss and leave-taking are suitably desolate. (The gothic mood climaxes with a version of Henry Purcell's graveyard dirge "When I Am Laid in Earth.") But Brun has a way of slipping little jokes into her laments. "I am crying a bottle of wine over you," she sings in " My Lover Will Go," adding, "For me it is red or nothing."
José González Veneer
You wouldn't know it from his name, but José González is a Swede (his parents are Argentine), and Veneer is a good companion piece to A Temporary Dive: more wintry folk-pop from Europe's north country. The album is almost entirely a solo acoustic affair—the loudest sound here is the scrape of fingers moving across the fret board—and González has the guitar skills to carry it off, whipping through open-tuned chord clusters and squeezing out bluesy drones in songs tinged with mystery and menace. (In " Slow Moves," he sings: "Their moves are slow, but soon you'll know/ They'll keep whispering their mantras/ We'll keep whispering our mantras." I'm not sure that means anything, but it sounds great.) González has soaked up a lot of music. He's clearly listened to bossa nova—his clear vibratoless vocal style seems modeled on João Gilberto's—and songs like "Lovestain" are like long lost Appalachian folk ballads. An established star in Sweden, where Veneer came out years ago, González got the best break a sensitive indie-folkie looking to crack the U.S. market could hope for: The song "Crosses" tinkled behind a pivotal moment of teen angst in last year's The O.C. season finale.
Lady & Bird
Lady & Bird
Lady & Bird is a three-year-old collaboration of Bardi Johannsson, the lead singer of Icelandic band Bang Gang, and singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel, whose solo albums have since made her international hipsterdom's favorite chanteuse. It is, according to the press notes, a theme album—a "children's story for adults" about a couple of "disembodied creatures" stuck in grown-ups' bodies, which climaxes when "the mysterious heroes contemplate their unusual predicament—they are unsure if the world outside their bodies is real or an illusion … and leap off a bridge into the void below." OK, fine. Pretensions aside, Lady & Bird is a beguiling mood piece whose pleasures—the rub of Johannsson's slight rasp against Zeidel's cool clear voice, the sumptuous toy church polyphony of songs like "Do What I Do"—can be relished without paying any attention to the "plot." Plus, what's not to love about an album that includes a killer cover of the M*A*S*H theme?
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio excerpts from Le Fil © 2006 Narada; A Temporary Dive © 2006 V2; Veneer © 2006 Mute/Imperial; and Lady & Bird © 2006 Yellow Tangerine. All rights reserved.