[2 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
They describe their sound as “chamber music - pop de chambre”. Among their influences they count, in addition to the Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel, 16th century songwriter John Dowland and 17th century composer Henry Purcell. They take their name from the Beatles album that is considered by many people the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album of all time. Do Revolver seem pretentious enough for you? Oh, yeah. They’re French.
Maybe to counteract some of this pretension, the Parisian trio have given their debut album, which has been out for a year in their native country and become something of a hit, the demure title Music for a While. As in, something to listen to while you’re in the car on your way to the university, drinking your latte at the café, or wrapping up that cocktail party in the wee hours. Actually, the title is itself a tribute to Purcell. Whatever. The implication is Music for a While promises exactly what the title says, no more or less, and your life won’t be much different after listening than it was before. Only that’s not really true. The dozen songs here sound light and inoffensive enough at first, but after a short time you’ll find yourself either helplessly charmed or thoroughly put off by them. Or both, maybe at the same time.
Opener “Birds in Dm” is a bit of a false lead, opening as it does with pensive acoustic guitar and ghostly harmonies that could’ve come straight from Fleet Foxes. It’s easily the most ethereal track on Songs for a While, but it sounds a bit forced and doesn’t completely suit a band as studious as this. Just as you’re about to dismiss Revolver as a harmless interloper on an indie scene that’s already oversaturated with this stuff, they run off a series of tracks that force you to reconsider.
The swooning, ambling rhythm and sweet melody and harmonies of “Leave Me Alone” have a timeless quality that makes you feel the song must be a cover. But it’s not. It’s the most charming, well-realized application of their classicist aesthetic. Not coincidentally, it’s also free of self-consciousness. Not far behind is “Back to You”, Songs for a While‘s smartest track. Again, the melody is effortless. But rather than the keening love song you might expect, this is a stinging kiss-off to the type of woman you’d imagine a band like Revolver being smitten by. “When she says she’s alone / Don’t believe her at all,” croons Ambroise Willaume in his stately voice that’s a bit like a Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody with his heart tucked back up his sleeve, “Stay away from the room / She could dump you for fun.” Then he addresses the woman directly, warning, “All that you do / And all that you say will be sent / Back to you.” That last line is uttered with a wonderful flippancy.
Not everything Revolver do leans so close to the fey side. “Balulalow” is edgy, nervous indie rock, while “Untitled #1” is a well-crafted, Smiths-like rockabilly. Both songs have a high-pitched, downhill-on-a-rollercoaster harmonizing and vocalese that alternately thrill and grate, depending on your mood. These tracks and the chugging, cello-driven (!) “A Song She Wrote” do the most to differentiate Revolver from their peers, and consequently they’ll be the ones that make or break that album for you. The rest of Music for a While is generally pleasing enough, but you’ll have to take a stand on these, and at the very least you have to respect Revolver for forcing your hand.
Revolver may be virtuosos, but they’re not yet experienced enough at pop music to avoid a couple major missteps. Paying homage to the Beach Boys is one thing, but doing so in the form of a “Kokomo”-era tribute like “Do You Have a Gun?” has to be a rookie mistake. Likewise, the boys just can’t pull off the old time swing of “Get Around Town” without recalling the Manhattan Transfer. But, maybe as penance, they offer up in “Luke, Mike & John” and “You Drove Me Home” a couple of wistful, pastoral folk ballads that feel like lost McCartney numbers from the White Album.
That’s the conundrum that Revolver pose. One moment, they sound at home with the greats. The next, they turn to schlock. At the very least, it renders Music for a While not so pretentious after all. These young men have shown enough to suggest they could evolve into something singular. In the meantime, Music for a While is one of the most intriguing, and often enjoyable, debuts of the year.