If you saw this CD in a shop, what would you think? My mind would trot out something like this:
“It’s black, but not a threatening black; no, not a graveyard black but a sleek, eveningwear black, a black that likes and admires itself. Look at her, she’s smiling a little. She seems friendly, or, at least, pleased. This music will be smooth and happy. Not ecstatic. Not passionate. No one will shout. (This woman looks as if she’s never shouted in her life.) No one will cry. It will be chic and sweatless. It will be the sort of music you listen to indoors. Then, the title. Le Pop, direct and perky. It will be a bit Jules et Jim, a little carefree. Cheerful? Yes. See, the woman on the right isn’t taking things too seriously.”
This is more or less what the album is like, although it’s more pastel-hued than the cover suggests, less slinky and superior, more bubbly, and toward the end the sleekness gives way to some rougher noises, specifically the opening of “Si Un Jour Tu Hésites” which is the compilation’s first, and only, taste of an organic rock guitar. The guitar is soon dissolved by a piano and then drummed out by Nicholas Haas’ dry, sweet voice. It was only there to act as a prelude to the sweetness. Le Pop 4 is not the album to turn to if you want to feel angry or think deep thoughts. But for inconsequential pleasure it’s perfect.
The musicians sound as if they’ve come from a place where civilisation is delightful. This does not necessarily mean France. The first singer we hear, Pierre Lapointe, hails from Montreal. He gets the album going with an orchestra’s worth of violins waving back and forth like a vespa swishing down a mountain road in an extremely classy mid-century movie starring playboy men who wear narrow moustaches, and laughing women in large sunglasses and slender, whippy white scarves. It’s a great opening, lush and cool at the same time. The near-overload of strings gives it an edge of retro cheek.
A band named Austine comes along next with “Rhume”. “Rhume” is another good song. All of the best songs on this disc come at the start. Lapointe’s strings are abruptly banished and replaced by a tautly-sketched skeleton of voice and guitar. There’s nothing else on the album to compete with this neat flip from one mood to another. The third song suffers in comparison. It isn’t that it’s a bad song, only that it can’t match the drama of the first two. “Sépia Plein Les Doigts” has neither the rotund majesty of Lapointe nor the tautness of “Rhume.” It jigs along, sounding as if would have been at home on Putumayo’s last French compilation, Paris.
Mathieu Boogaerts’ “Les Tchèques” could have been a Putumayo song as well. The instruments move on tip-toe, creeping forward like a band of children with sheets over their heads looking for someone to scare. Le Pop 4 is more daring than Paris—Lapointe would never have made it onto the Putumayo disc—but it seems to be aiming for the same mood, a kind of jaunty breeziness, without the earnest eyes of smiling parental concern that tend to peer out of Putumayo’s presentations.
Pascal Parisot is the only musician who appears on both Paris and Le Pop 4. In “Le Naturel” he skews the song with a squiffily blurting trumpet and his own lazy voice. Holden, a group of malleable size led by Armelle Pioline and a guitarist named Mocke, sails along on a suave chill of bachelor-pad groove and a weird, stifled clangour of horns and mysterious doings, as if bells are being rung surreptitiously down alleyways. Ludo Pin’s “3 Secondes” is all squirts and wet squats, wobble-bottomed electronic farts. Eddy (la)Gooyatsch sings in a frail, masculine voice that quavers as if it’s about to fall apart. He’s held together by a muted glockenspiel, rounded and bright as a Calder mobile.
Le Pop 4 isn’t supposed to sound like an American or British pop album sung in a different language. Frenchness, in this case, is a certain marketable attitude, a pop sophistication that prevents the addition to Le Pop 4 of any French singer who yawls like Avril Lavigne. There’s a sniff of rap aggression in the way Jeanne Cherhal delivers her lyrics in “Voilà”, but it’s not a big sniff. She borrows the idea of the sound rather than the emotion behind it. In other words, she doesn’t seem angry. No one does. Mélanie Pain is a little melancholy in “La Cigarette” but she gets over it. This is pop music aimed at grown-ups who will appreciate the chic of the cover photograph and not want to dance too much. It’s a Gigi of an album: a voluptuous and innocent charmer.