When I open the case for Octet’s debut album Cash and Carry Songs, the first thing I see is the disc-image of members Francois Goujon and Benjamin Morando in suits and ties. I take the CD out and they’re still looking at me from the inside of the tray card. I try to take the picture ironically; I don’t want to look at people who want to me to look at them seriously on the front of their CD. I can’t quite be sure that such a self-aware distancing exists, though. Cash and Carry Songs has its smart moments of formal scrutiny, but it also contains many straightforward moments of lap pop, and this type of oscillation between approaches (as well as between sounds) makes Octet a difficult act to place.
The album opens with “Hey Bonus”, a song so Beatle-esque that I actually had to head to my collection to make sure that this track didn’t use an uncredited sample. The melody lies somewhere between “Fixing a Hole” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, but it lasts in full for just a few seconds before the glitch work begins. Just when it gets the cut-and-paste groove going with a new verbal hook, the electronic club beats come in. The duo claim their interest lies in “taking the pop format apart” and this song demonstrates that idea precisely. Hidden among the blips and chops is a traditional pop song, but it’s harpsichord root plays a rhythm role, and the beats and effects drop in and out erratically, keeping the listener off balance without fully knocking her over.
While the opening track provides a great take on glitch-pop, the rest of the album decentralizes the pop influence, too often falling into the standard electronic approach of putting breathy female vocals over steady drums. These tracks are nice enough, but they occasionally lack the connection and originality that Octet can provide at moments. Suzanne Thoma (known for her work with M83) provides vocals for two of these tracks, and performs well. One of the album’s highlights, “Blind Repetition” lacks any sort of percussion, relying on her singing and a woodwind that jumps a fifth over and over.
That track’s smoothness provides a soothing lull before “Brick-o-Lizer” kicks in with a minute of fuzz. “Brick-o-Lizer” doesn’t really function as a stand-alone song so much as a transition into “Feels Good to Give Up”. On this number, Goujon and Morando start with a Dre-like keyboard riff before adding that synth sound the Unicorns love to indulge in. Taylor Savvy and Yasmine Mohammedi join in with American R&B vocals. The number’s smooth but unaffecting. It gives peace without the beauty of “Blind Repetition”. By this point we’ve seen pop deconstruction (at least in the sense that the word has come to mean in mainstream music criticism), traditional-sounding electronic music, noise, a soft vocal track, R&B, and just a touch of hip hop on Cash and Carry Songs. Octet have created an album with diverse sounds, but—for the most part—a certain unity. This unity, however, lacks a center; it’s more of a general effect, like listening to a radio station that plays varied songs from one musical field. For that reason, “Zwischenspiel” might help us get a sense of Octet’s central (but not centering) idea. Zwischenspiel comes from the German and translates into English as “between play”, but it echoes more of a French philosophical framework. Post-structuralism relies on a sense of indeterminacy, on language in play, and on unstable referents. The phrase “between play” suggests the brief moments of solid contact between changing meanings. The song “Zwischenspiel” contains some of the disc’s most ambient and least rhythmic or melodic music, creating feeling of patience (which in turn requires change). The album relies on transition, but also on moments of hesitation.
“Zwischenspiel” is possibly the album’s least memorable track on its own terms, but it does seem to sum up Octet’s aesthetic on Cash and Carry Songs: keep genre-identity loose, resting in one spot only for one song at a time. The approach generally succeeds, but it also prevents Octet from being an identifiable band. It’s hard to return to their sound when we don’t know what it is. On the other hand, it’s hard not to return to their sounds when they’re so enjoyable.