Putumayo’s slogan is “Music to make you feel good”, and for the past 10 years they’ve stuck to it with sunny fidelity. There is nothing in their catalogue that might seem frightening, nothing offensive, nothing noisy, nothing rough, and nothing depressing except their occasional excursions into the blues. This consistency even extends to their cover art, which is always painted by the same British woman, Nicola Heindl, in the same style. The men in this artwork are nubile, the women are young and their hair blows in the wind, the scenery is pretty, and everyone purses their lips forward unnaturally, like human fish.
If there is any chance that you might feel alarmed by a compilation of songs you can’t understand, performed by foreigners whose names you don’t recognise, then Putumayo works diligently to reassure you, even down to providing pronunciation guides. Thomas Fersen, the first singer on Paris, is toh-MAS fair-sen, and his song is called “Au Café de la Paix”, also known as ah kah-FAY duh lah pay. The duo Presque Oui is PRES-kuh wee. Aldebert is al-duh-BEAR. (It’s easy to snicker, but this can come in handy when you’ve forgotten whether Carla Bruni’s surname should end with -eye or -ee. It’s BROO-nee, says Putumayo.)
Within the narrow boundaries they’ve set for themselves they’ve done a remarkable job. They don’t rip off their artists, and they don’t settle for the cheap and nasty. They want the cream of the crop. Paris sounds like the work of people who have developed a clear idea of the mood they’re looking for and then worked hard to create a CD that embodied it as perfectly as possible. If you want gently swinging nouvelle chanson flavoured with bossa nova and a little bal musette then you’ve come to a good place. I’m not completely convinced that this is a worthwhile sound to spend 50 minutes of your life pursuing, but who knows, you might love it. Café-bossa nova chanson could be your favourite music in the world, and here I am, casting aspersions. Bad me.
Paris opens with the sound of Fersen using his good, rough voice over a piano and glockenspiel, followed by Coralie Clément, who coos and sighs on “Samba de Mon Coeur Qui Bat”. Marie-Hélène Picard insinuates. Amélie-Les-Crayons sings through a smile. Christopher Mali is husky. Almost all of the excitement on the album comes from the timbre and texture of the human voice. The usual style of singing on Paris is close to casual speech, a tuneful speaking-singing that chanson musicians use often and well. It lays emphasis on the personality of the person behind the voice rather than the technical proficiency of the voice itself. Thus, Carla Bruni comes across sounding sweetly capable even though she talks her way through “Quelqu’un M’a Dit”, doing nothing more complicated than change the speed of her delivery from fast to slow and hum a bit.
In the majority of the songs, the instruments are relegated to supplementary roles, with a few exceptions such as Paris Combo’s “Lettre A P…”, which gives breathing room to a nicely grainy trumpet and double-bass. (The song, which is tingly-cute and biting-sweet, criticises Paris for its air pollution.)
Paris is mild enough to work as background music, but the best way to listen to it is to lie by the speakers and pay attention until you can picture the singers’ lips coming together to pop their Ps and then they begin to seem like friends. That Aldebert, eh? What a dinkum bloke. What a sweetie. True to Putumayo’s philosophy, it’s music to make you feel good, or, at least, ‘good’ in the modest sense of leaving you sleepy and smiling and disinclined to do wrong. Its ambition is to be pleasant, and pleasant is what it is.