[5 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When Final Fantasy was named the winner of the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, Canada’s answer to the UK’s Mercury Prize, it wasn’t the biggest of surprises, as Owen Pallett’s one-man band has captivated critics and indie fans enough during the last two years to be a deserving recipient of the $20,000 award. That said, when the 10-artist short list was announced earlier this past summer, an even more obscure Montreal band turned out to be the biggest revelation, its song on the subsequent short list compilation the disc’s highlight, leaving many English speaking listeners, not to mention the odd juror (including yours truly), wondering, why am I only hearing of Malajube now?
Montreal has given us a bevy of Anglophone music over the past few years, ranging from the great (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade) to the atrocious (AIDS Wolf), but for all the indie cool the city has exuded, the majority of Francophone bands have seemed to slip past the tastemakers’ radar. The province of Quebec has a strange, insular French-speaking popular culture, one that remains foreign to the rest of Canada, so when Malajube beat out other well-hyped Canadian acts like Destroyer and Islands on the Polaris list, one had to wonder cynically if the nomination was a token nod to French Canadian music. Thirty seconds into the jubilant “Pâte Filo”, however, and any skepticism was swept away by some of the most euphoric, contagious Canadian indie rock to come out in the last 12 months.
With its kitchen sink approach to recording, cramming every sound imaginable into a muddy mix to the point where you think the proverbial dam will burst, by as many contributing musicians as Broken Social Scene uses, and with songs that mine several different musical eras at once, Trompe-L’Oeil is arguably the most joyously cluttered album to come round these parts since the Sleepy Jackson bombarded its way into our hearts three years ago. At first, Malajube’s apparent lack of focus is alarming, but at the heart of every song is a beguiling simplicity, with astounding hooks buried underneath all the energetic activity, completely devoid of the kind of preciousness that tends to undermine the music of other hipster darlings.
There’s such a whirlwind of activity on the album, and all sung in French, I might add, that it’s best to sit back and drink it all in. To mention all the influences pulled out would be pointless: folk morphs into twee, into ska, into cabaret, into goth, into ‘70s AM radio pop, into post punk, into power pop, into post rock, and on, and on. Lyrically, singer Julien Mineau tosses out oddball poetic nuggets in his native tongue, from polar bears riding buses to mouths full of confetti, but whether it’s a genuine love song (“Ton Plat Favori”) or a bit of esoteric wordplay (“Casse-cou”), the music, and most importantly, the hooks, are superb enough to transcend any language barrier.
“Pâte Filo” is an absolute gem, highlighted by its cascading piano, Mineau’s blissed-out falsetto vocals, and note-perfect use of slide guitar, which ascends and descends playfully. The buoyant “Montréal -40°C” might seem like a Modest Mouse homage at first, but quickly dissolves into a whimsical sing-along refrain followed by an inexplicable waltz during the bridge before concluding abruptly. Ragtime piano collides with robust rock ‘n’ roll on the riotous “Ton Plat Favori”, while the gorgeous ballad “Étienne D’Août” moves at a surprisingly restrained gait, boasting the kind of dreamy melody that British piano balladeers would kill for, yet never panders to the listener, the second half inclusion of strings sounding more stately than stadium rock.
Elsewhere, “Le Crabe” pulls out the power chords briefly, its wonky opening riff gives way to four more separate movements in four minutes before comfortably coming full circle at its conclusion. The frantic “Fille À Plumes”, meanwhile, features flailing, dance-driven percussion by Francis Mineau, while “La Russe” marks a sudden foray into simple techno, with guest vocals by separatist Quebecois rap group Loco Locass. “La Monogamie” is a good microcosm of the entire album, a song that careens from one extreme to the other, but miraculously, the band manages to keep everything intact, the stylistic shifts never sounding arbitrary.
Like the best indie rock records, Trompe-L’Oeil works around its low-budget limitations; the mix does sound dense and overwhelmed at times, but the vocal melodies are always there to keep each song centered, and when the instrumental arrangements do come close to overkill, the band always knows just when to pull back enough to avoid alienating the listener. Not only is it one of the finest Canadian albums of the year, but it’s a huge one for Canada’s Francophone music community, one that’s managed to attract the attention of people outside Quebec, opening a small, hitherto unknown musical scene to a much larger audience. Vous avez attiré notre attention, mes amis. Keep the great music coming.