Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains: E Volo Love

[27 February 2012]

By Matt Cibula

French new wave plus Afro-pop touches...but somehow not annoying!

It is easy to be worried about the project called Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains. The group consists of a few Frenchmen headed by Fránçois Marry, who is described by his record company as having “vivid looks and a slender body.” There is no kind of defined sound, only a general philosophy that a song can contain whatever M. Marry wants it to contain that particular day. And his voice is nothing to write sonnets about, especially when he sings in English.

This will all be made clear by track two of E Volo Love, “Muddy Heart”. It’s indie-pop as all get out. “To take care of you,” he warbles over a slow jangle, “when you’re away / To take care of me too / I bury my heart in the ground,” going on to describe a long-distance relationship barely hanging on, with him dreamy and wasted hoping to see someone somewhere down the line and hoping not to see her too. The vocal content’s emotional level is set to 11, which apparently takes such a toll on Marry that he forgets how to sing. The turgidity of the track is broken up a little toward the end, with a little “Rock Your Baby” guitar, but the track just pretty much sits there throughout. Not a very auspicious track two…

But fortunately, we’ve already been seduced by track one! “Les Plus Beaux” is everything that “Muddy Heart” is not: interestingly layered, innovative, Francophone and full of the African touches that this particular album has taken to its heart. Sure, there’s more than a little Vampire Weekend spunkiness in “Les Plus Beaux”, but there’s also a little Talking Heads in the songcraft, a bit of Gilberto Gil in the circular melody and a pleasing 10cc sort of backing vocal. So by the time one is trying to make it through “Muddy Heart” one has already been charmed by what they do better, and is a bit more forgiving.

This dual consciousness permeates the rest of the record. First single “Piscine” is measured out with coffee spoons: a bit of tromping piano, subtle percussion both electronic and non-, and Fránçois’ French vocals, which are a lot more charming than his English ones. By the time the song hits its surprising dance groove halfway through, the funk seems fully earned. When it morphs again into something bigger and more epic, we’re fully along for the ride.

Now, if you’re allergic to slowly-played love songs in foreign languages, then not even the lovely female vocals and string arrangements of “Cherchant des Ponts” will bring you back. And you will catch hives from the bilingual “Azrou Tune”, which doesn’t seem to really care what kind of song it is, wavering between woozy and bleu-eyed soul with saxophones in full effect. Fortunately, “Slow Love” is peppier than its title implies, and contains a ton of weird psychedelic touches, or it might be a deal-breaker.

In general, they’re a lot more successful when they keep things sprightly. “Edge of Town” sounds vaguely West African, but has backing vocals that sound completely lifted from any given Of Montreal song. Strange as that sounds, it works fully, even if he does make some mistakes lyrically trying to make “sitting by the fire / drinking alcohol” sound sexy. And the downright perky “City Kiss” might as well have been the closing credits theme for every single romantic comedy of the 1990s.

Overall, even through the rough spots, this is a project deserving of full attention. A little honing here, a little more pep there, and we could have a new contender for Interesting Group status.

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