Apart from a few tiny surprises, the Ensemble collective has made a neither-fish-nor-fowl kind of album.
"They come, they go / Things I forget" go the very first set of lyrics on Ensemble's new album Excerpts. This noncommittal shrug of wishy-washiness is a pretty good portrayal of French-born musician Olivier Alary's artistic nature. This is the kind of electronic indie music that is all about putting on a game face but never really taking a swing. Heavily repetitious pop music is one thing, but Ensemble is just full of pretense and disconnect. Alary has been favorably compared to more bizarre electro acts like Autechre, but he seems all too reluctant to let that freak flag fly. Instead, you get Stereolab at low volume.
Even with so much studio technology at the ready, Alary treads the shallow end, with too many dainty waltzes (dink-plunk-plunk, dink-plunk-plunk) that seem designed to soothe the worries of venture capitalists who are trying to secure a composer to score the next Wes Anderson film. It's hard to tell where Alary's work as an electronic musician stops and the collaborations with Berlin-based composer Johannes Malfatti begin. So much of Excerpts feels, through lots of unnecessary effort, dominated by strings. A series of dead vocal performances from Darcy Conroy neither help nor hurt the overall sound, steamrolling the whole thing into white wallpaper.
Excerpts also has the strange and frustrating ability to make its songs feel about twice as long as they really are. The cause of this could be the flat and expressionless vocals, both male and female, or the fact that Ensemble does not introduce any variations to its vamps. When Alary and Malfatti stick all 20 of their fingers into the Ensemble pie, even the most subtle change of pattern would be expected. Instead, otherwise forgettable songs like "Things I Forget" and "Les Saisons Viennent" guarantee that if you missed a few seconds of the song, the same exact thing is due to occur again and again.
Those optimists who name-dropped Autechre and Boards of Canada in Ensemble's favorable reviews can't all be mistaken, can they? Of course not. Interesting things do happen. They just wrap up too quickly. The closing minute of "Envies D’avalanches" is one of those rare moments on Excerpts where Ensemble isn't afraid to wake the baby. It just so happens that the tune preceding it is reliant on a thicker-than-mud rhythm track, making it disjointed to say the least. The final track "Before Night" does a lovely job of screwing with conventional harmony. Two chords are parlayed back and forth in a way that may seem ordinary at first, but eventually unfolds into dissonant beauty. The same thing happens to a lesser extent on the lead-in track "Opening", beginning life like an orchestral tune-up and slowly falling into the ether. The appetizer and dessert outshine the meal itself.
Excerpts' unique qualities end there. The rest of the album is too aloof to fully commit itself to accessible pop and too bland to be considered a left-field underdog. It's not that Ensemble has made an actively bad album. It's just that somber music which comes from abstract origins shouldn't be so vacuous and blank.