[19 July 2009]
A friend of mine used to hole up in the Quad studios at Harvard for weeks at a time. The place sounded both like a safe haven and a stimulating technical challenge: how to master these boards of knobs and switches, to control sound’s unruly splatter? While my buddy’s goal was to get into the dorm rooms of the college girls through their speakers (giving his acoustic ballads that requisite yearning), he early on told me of a couple of underclassmen who had larger ambitions. D.A. Wallach and Maxwell Drummey had a name—Chester French—but not much else. They were certified production geniuses, apparently, but super secretive about their songs, and had been working, apparently, on an album that was going to be huge. And their dreams were to be pop stars.
Having met D.A., it was easy to believe that the duo were going to get somewhere. The energetic frontman, given to wearing white suits and sunglasses beneath his mess of curly hair, is as charismatic as a politician, but has more follow-through (he Facebooked me the next day to remind me of the name—Chester French—and their progress in the studio). The group was always talked about more as a studio project than a live act, and I never heard of them performing while I was at school with them. But soon a few demos got shared around, a MySpace page was set up—and the strategy turned out to be prescient, because as time went by, small (and not so small) mentions of the group trickled out: that they had the support of an expert engineer in Los Angeles; that they were in talks with Pharrell Williams and Kanye West about signing a record deal; that they were collaborating with Taleb Kweli on a song. Then Entourage Season 4 premiered, and “She Loves Everybody”—their first big song—played over the end credits. They were on their way.
Chester French eventually signed to Star Trak, Williams’s label (and an imprint of Interscope), and after remixing a few hip-hop songs, put out their own mixtape earlier this year. Get Familiar with Chester French—Jacques Jams Vol. 1: Endurance is silly but suitably self-promotional, and hints at what could become the group’s most profitable future: producing music over which other people rap, or sing. That’s not to say Chester French doesn’t have its own appeal, but—like the Neptunes/N.E.R.D.—their ideas are so wide-ranging that a single output channel is likely to come across as slightly unfocussed.
And there’s a hint of this across Love the Future, Chester French’s debut. From Beach Boys harmonies to straight electro-pop to Johnny Cash interpolations, Wallach and Drummey prove apt at the craft of pop songwriting, but they’re not quite in control of their creativity. Their best songs have a swooning minor-key harmony, but bright pop overtones. “She Loves Everybody” was an unexpected introduction that, crucially, becomes more confluent with each listen. “The Jimmy Choos”, which made the rounds next, remains one of their most successful songs, with just enough cultural cache to grab that new-pop thrill and a radio-ready chorus. Less familiar but equally welcome album tracks include “C’mon (On My Own)”, a Kelly Clarkson-style pop-pop-punk (i.e. pop >> punk) track that bounces with an infectious exuberance, and the understated but effective (and exceedingly melodically familiar) “Not Over You”.
The group has also obviously benefited from their time locked away in the studio. The production is impressive, especially for a self-taught young group, and is enamoured with new sounds—little sliding swoops of synth or a maraca, a harpsichord or pizzicato spicing up a second verse, or a thunderclap. This production maximalism reminds you of an as-yet-incompletely-formed Basement Jaxx, maybe—though, of course, Chester French have a different market in mind. Their recent MTV exposure won’t hurt those chances. And though a few of the songs on Love the Future fail to capture the spark of their early successes, overall it’s a fairly impressive introductory statement.
As to whether Chester French end up being successful as producers of other artists’ songs or genuine pop stars in their own right, we’ll have to wait and see. Their aesthetic—that unashamed use of classic pop tropes and harmonies beneath a shiny new synth coating—is certainly fresh. But is it, as Wallach sings on “Fingers”, “fresh to death”? I’m not sure. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we start hearing more of this type of stuff up in the top 20s over the next few years.