Some musical endeavors are just doomed from the outset. The opening notes inspire unpleasant images of what’s to come, and then the rest of the album lives up to those first impressions. By the last track, the overwhelming sentiment is, “Thank God. Glad that’s over.” Well, okay, Fred Avril’s new album That Horse Must Be Starving isn’t quite that bad. While listening to it, I didn’t experience any impulses to smash my Discman or the CD itself. I was just really bored.
Avril, possessing some foggy European origins, now resides in Paris. It’s there that the 29-year-old writes and records his works of electronic pop, funk, and jazz. That Horse Must Be Starving is both his debut full-length as well as his first effort for PIAS Recordings. PIAS, home to Sigur Rós, Mogwai, and Betty Serveert, has been putting out records from some of the most innovative alternative bands in Europe. Starting up in Brussels in the early ’80s, PIAS has grown, with offices all over Europe and now in America. Avril’s summer 2003 release furthers the label’s credibility as a company with discerning taste and an ear for solid Europop. Label credibility does not, however, guarantee an interesting collection of songs.
That Horse Must Be Starving has all the elements of a solidly entertaining chilled-out electronic experience: ambient guitars, rhythmic static, blips, bloops, some throbbing beats sufficient for head bobbing, and even mellow vocals that slide between speakers to create an effective stereo experience. And I guess the point of listening to a mellow album is to be mellow. Relaxation doesn’t mean boredom, though, and even with this promising combination of sounds, Avril mainly succeeds in inspiring me to, while listening to this record, find something else to do. In other words, listening just isn’t enough.
The album opens with “Velvet Blues”, an appropriately smooth Portishead ripoff. The riff has a slick groove to it, and the strings in the background almost had me expecting Beth Gibbons’ delicate voice. Even the lyrics, “Angels like you can fly”, had Portishead between the lines.
On “The Date”, Avril croons like some cross between Prince and Justin Timberlake — not a wholly unpleasant experience, but disconcerting at the same time. The beat itself comes straight out of Madonna’s “Music”.
Rhythmically speaking, “Like Everybody Does” is the album’s most interesting track. It starts with a sinuous R&B beat, one that inspires images of late-night walks through a city whose only inhabitants are sleek, leather-clad models. Pretty vivid, but false. Avril’s vocals remind me of Maroon5’s Adam Levine; however, whereas Levine’s funk-inspired growl is sexy all the time, Avril’s gets monotonous real quick.
The next several tracks lapse into non-descript ambient sound. Strange noises, plinky piano melodies, pops that switch channels, and Avril’s somewhat droning vocals blend these tracks into a thickly layered but forgettable fog of sound. “Double Mind” even features a breathy female vocalist whispering je t’aime into the microphone.
Clocking in at just over 55 minutes, That Horse Must Be Starving — and let’s pause to think for a moment where that title came from — drags by about half-way through. The album has some pretty moments, and even a few funky vocal tracks worth more than a few listens; however, Fred Avril has a ways to go before he can catch and hold my attention. His predecessors in this genre are a lot to live up to, and right now, Avril’s talents are eclipsed by those that came before him. Portishead, Aphex Twin, and, of course, Prince don’t have much to worry about yet in terms of competition from this French newcomer.