[22 March 2007]
Until the release of The Flower Book, the US had been surrounded by a force field set to repel all attempted invasions by French producer, vocalist, and electronic artist Emilie Simon. Despite releasing three very strong albums and winning awards in her homeland, the American headquarters for her label, Universal, has sat on their hands, perhaps unsure how to market Simon in America. Well, let’s take a stab with this one: Emilie Simon is the French Björk!
Fortunately, that oversimplifies Emilie’s music, but it’ll suffice for luring in listeners who enjoy the kind of artfully askew electronic pop music that’s best served chilly. Her 2003 self-titled debut was evocative enough of polar landscapes for the producers of the film La March de l’Empereur to seek out Simon and commission her to compose its soundtrack. English-speaking audiences know the work better as The March of the Penguins, a documentary about the life cycle of Antarctica’s emperor penguins. You’ll also have heard a completely different score for the film, because Simon’s works were lifted out in favor of Alex Wurman’s compositions, which were deemed better suited to American and British audiences (or maybe they just provided a nice background for Morgan Freeman’s narration).
Stifled yet undaunted, Emilie Simon released her critically lauded third full-length, Végétal, in spring of 2006. It continued her streak of very fine albums comprised of concise and claustrophobic pop songs mixed with meditative diversions. Despite this strong run of releases and a growing worldwide fan base, it’s taken the smallish Milan Records to finally get the music of Emilie Simon issued in America.
The Flower Book is a compilation of the best 15 tracks from Simon’s three albums. Better to think of it as an introduction, though, rather than a greatest hits. Certainly, such labeling would be preemptive. Simon is on her way up, not out. As far as the U.S. is concerned, her career has only just begun. Focusing heavily on Simon’s more pop-structured efforts, The Flower Book doesn’t really attempt to explore the full range of her music. No instrumentals are present, and most cuts have a beat that, even if you can’t always dance to it, will hold your mind glued to the music. In this sense, the disc actually does feel like a greatest hits package, devoid of filler. Now, I’d hesitate to term any of Simon’s work “filler,” but my main criticism of her albums has been their lack of focus. While listening to one of her previous CDs straight through, I’ve never been sure if I should be paying close attention or spacing out. The Flower Book, on the other hand, pulls the listener in right from the start and holds on until the very end.
Kicking off with La March‘s “Song of the Storm”, the disc introduces us to Simon’s Kate Bushy side. The song sweeps dark clouds across “The Big Sky” and sways to the heady feel of “Heads We’re Dancing”. Simon follows this nod to one obvious major influence with a cover of another that you’d never see coming: The Stooges. Yes, track two is that “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, converted here to creepy gothic sleaze, as if Danielle Dax were fronting Depeche Mode. Your perspective may vary along with ideals of rock ‘n’ roll purity, but, in my book, this style morphing is both successful and sexy as hell. Simon’s native tongue emerges on “Dame de Lotus”, a chugging rhythm with an Asian string melody intermittently in bloom. Track four is “Desert”, a melancholic ballad. Though sung in English, the music echoes the regret and the undeniably French motifs of Edith Piaf (albeit electronicized).
Although reviewed in order from the album’s beginning, any sampling of tracks from The Flower Book will reveal an artist whose songs draw on a range of influences (is that Laurie Anderson who’s fallen “In the Lake”?), but which are drawn tightly together by Simon’s lovely purr and the certitude of her approach and vision. That’s not to say that this sampler’s continuity wasn’t also premeditated; this CD wasn’t thrown together. It begins with its most assertive cut and concludes with the lullaby-like “To the Dancers in the Rain”. The song makes for a lovely and twinkling finale to The Flower Book, the excellent compilation and U.S. debut from Emilie Simon, who is far more than just the French Björk.