Le Fly Pan Am has been with Constellation, a label noted for its arty instrumental music, since its inception. On N’Ecoutez Pas, its third album, the group sounds intent to make us notice each oddity and sonic quirk. While the band provides some stellar musical moments, its insistence on its own progressiveness sometimes detracts from the album by dropping it into an outmoded attempt at invention. Those distractions are a shame, but one worth overlooking, because when Le Fly Pan Am keeps their focus on their music, they prove that they can be simultaneously as enjoyable and intriguing as anyone in their genre.
Despite the group’s history of experimental post-rock and noise, the opening track, “Brûlez suivant, suivante!”, has one of the album’s most traditional songs. Traditional, of course, not meaning normal exactly, but the piece does have a set of hooks, a steady groove, and a recognizable structure. The vocals are little more than breathy chants, but they make up an effective component of this almost dancey post-punk number. Le Fly Pan Am nods to the current New York scene with this number, but they don’t embrace it. The club feel serves more to bring out the weirdness of the rest of the track, rather than to add an element of stability to a barely restrained track.
The club influence appears at various points throughout the album, most notably again on the disc’s brief closer, “Le Faux Pas Aimer Vous Souhait D’Être Follement Ami”. The song lasts a minute and 18 seconds, but only have of that time has a clear musical feel. The track’s placement at the end of the disc serves to remind you of what wasn’t: traditional songs, trend-following, or catchy choruses (it’s debatable whether or not there are choruses). Le Fly Pan Am point at pop just enough to make sure you realize that your context is being de-stabilized.
That time of pointing, however, only reveals the album’s true liminal position between pop and the avant-garde. Contemporary audiences are no longer surprised or overwhelmed merely by the nature of 11-minute songs (two of which show up on N’Ecoutez Pas or by the replacement of melody with crescendo. While rockers in this vein can certainly still turn out magnificent works in this genre—such as Do Make Say Think’s Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn from last year—the works don’t have surprise on their side. Likewise, noise-rock has been, if not mainstream, just on the outskirts for at least a couple decades now. Combining these two traditions is not in itself an experimental step. Audiences are prepared to engage with such music, so artists have the opportunity to expand on that sound.
Le Fly Pan Am only partially succeeds on this record. Some of the tracks, like the opener, are interesting and enjoyable, but others fall flat. Twice on this disc we encounter two-minute collections of found sound and abstract noise. The first, “Ex Éleveur de Renards Argentes” devolves into a Sgt. Peppers-like spate of jibberjabber. Caught in an strange-40-years-ago trap, the band falls somewhere between outmoded pop art and simple cliché. These noise tracks offer no more surprise than a painting of a Campbell’s soup can would and merely interrupt the music.
When the group sticks to music, they can be quite impressive. The two epics “Autant Zig-Zag” and “Très Très ‘Retro’” offer plenty of exciting moments, usually based around an aggressive guitar sound, but with plenty of electronic effects. The real highlight comes on “Pas à Pas Step Until”, which uses repetition and groove to build and almost release tension. Halfway between the two long pieces, this number shows the power that can be contained in a tight number with emotional restraint. The big chord toward the end that should be a climax, isn’t; instead, it just gives you a little nudge to remind you what could be turned loose. It’s smooth and subtle artistic statement, but the following electronic sounds on “...” don’t reflect that tracks development, nor do they turn the listener in a new direction. This track, like “Ex Éleveur de Renards Argentes” before it, simply marks time until the musicians start again.
N’Ecoutez Pas wavers in this manner throughout its length. The songs are smart and self-reflexive and can carry themselves well, but the sound-dabbling brings down the disc. Le Fly Pan Am have produced a series of creative tracks, but it’s too bad they had to throw in the dull moments to remind us that we’re not listening to any old pop. Reminding us of something we already know doesn’t help, which is why from now on I’m applying the album’s title phrase only to those empty tracks.