Alsace Lorraine plays music that’s pretty, but not in the way you’d expect. Pretty like the girl you took out on a date who couldn’t hold a two-minute conversation—looks good on the outside, but ultimately lacks substance. The band’s 2001 debut, Through Small Windows, was a delicate display of windswept dream pop. The release was pleasant, but, at times, closely resembled vapid elevator music. Dark One, the band’s sophomore effort, is a bit more defined and engaging, and this may be due to the contribution of the group’s new vocalist, Isol.
The Argentinean chanteuse, who conjures up Astrud Gilberto, is singing for the first time in English and has an adorably insufficient grasp of the language. Her presence, alongside Paul Francke’s elegant melodies, provides a crisp aspect to the characteristically vacant songs. She also contributed to the songwriting for the tracks she sings on, making the Francke/Isol duo the new face of Alsace Lorraine.
Conspicuously absent on this effort are the vocals of Caitlin Brice. Brice, whose whispery, frail voice pervaded throughout Windows, takes a backseat—providing harmonies on one song. Not that I want to over-emphasize the lineup change, but when Francke’s monotone delivery enters in “Dulce at Decorum” you get an unwanted glimpse into the utter mediocrity of their previous effort. Likewise on “One Day, Far Off, if the World Forgot”, where Francke endlessly laments the “faint androgynerds” and dulled “record grooves”—I shudder at such a world. He makes a brief attempt at Britpop with the upbeat “Claire”, before offering yet another lyrical and stylistic downer, “Burden Down”.
It’s the tracks with Isol that really give the listener something to hold on to. Her soft vocals and fledgling ESL skills shine brightly on the opening track “As We Fight” (although I’m not sure she wrote the line “Home Skillet, does she calm your dad?”). The song is one of the few unmistakably poppy songs amongst a sea of sad and somber ballads. “Call for Papers” shows the dream pop duo alternating verses and harmonizing the chorus; the contrast is a welcome addition to the tepid atmosphere which permeates throughout Francke’s compositions.
The album really makes an imprint with “The Tall Grass”—Isol’s most delightful and enticing ballad. The song exemplifies the fruitful marriage of Isol’s delicate voice with Francke’s atmospheric tunes. However, “The Tall Grass” is a brief 2:11, quickly giving way to Francke’s dreary voice with “Lost Province”—a song that had me grasping for my iPod to search for the Argentinean accent once again. “Go from My Window” provides a steady beat to Isol’s voice, and “No Stars” has the two wispy vocalists combing once again to lambaste the modeling business (why not?). Among the other 15 tracks are remixes of “Tall Grass” and “Call for Papers” which, for the sake of brevity, could have been scrapped (the originals are fine enough). And then there’s Francke’s sole acoustic lament, “The Gravel Road”, sandwiched between the two remixes. “It saw you wake before the sunrise / You thought you left without a sound”, Franke explains in an eerily stalker-like deadpan.
Alsace Lorraine plays the kind of music you badly want to like. It’s pretty, somber, sincere, and coherent. Paul Francke’s sparse, light, atmospheric arrangements are pleasant, but it really takes Isol, the Argentinean songstress, to breathe some life into this band. And it will be interesting to see how this collaboration will develop over time. I sincerely hope they continue to make music together, because without Isol’s voice I am anxious to stop the elevator and get out at the next floor.