Bye Bye Beauté‘s defining sound is Clément’s voice, a supernally girlish whisper floating so absurdly high up in the mix you can hear her gums smacking together. Admittedly, this production strategy has a certain merit. Who could resist the sound of a female voice, singing exclusively in French, pushing those softly sibilant syllables (ooh la la) past her wetly clicking lips and tongue? But since this is supposed to be Clément’s rock move, there’s something simultaneously off-putting about it. Gentle female francophone vocals are one thing, but when heard atop riffy, post-punk guitar noise and Beatles-y melodies their overall effect is just plain weird, like hearing Jane Birkin’s virginal little-girl coo metamorphose into an ecstatic lover’s moan in “Je T’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus”.
And there, by the way, was your obligatory Serge Gainsbourg reference. Zut alors, I really thought I could make it out of the first paragraph without resorting to that obvious, ham-fisted comparison. Yet it’s apt nevertheless. Clément’s older brother and collaborator, Benjamin Biolay, is also a singer. But “[l]ike Gainsbourg before him” (as a recent New York Times Magazine profile pointed out), “Biolay styles himself as more than just a singer — he’s also a songwriter, producer and composer”. He’s the musical brains behind Bye Bye Beauté, writing or co-writing ten of the album’s dozen songs and producing or co-producing all but one. Though the Times Magazine piece goes on to identify other more superficial similarities between Gainsbourg and Biolay (both their fathers pushed them into music, both married actresses, both have a penchant for coercing their loved ones into recording albums), it leaves it up to the reader to infer that the reason the latter will never receive any press — positive or negative — without seeing the former’s name close by is because of Biolay’s ambition to break into the American market. When people think about French pop, they think about Gainsbourg. Biolay wants to change all that.
That most non-French folks, in fact, never think about French pop seems to deter Biolay not at all. Still, just to be on the safe side, Biolay has consciously and effectively de-Frenched his music, eliminating the histrionics of chanson and the accordion of musette. What’s left is midtempo guitar/bass/drums/synth rock with a distinctly ’60s sense of tunecraft, which Biolay is just talented enough to pull off most of the time; nearly every song has at least one interesting musical idea somewhere inside it. The en–hiver “Avec Ou Sans Moi” crunches along merrily enough, like big black boots in new snow. “Mais Pourtant” has a sweetly off-kilter melody. And “L’Enfer” and “Bye Bye Beauté” each include some pretty catchy hooks.
It should be noted, however, that those hooks are entirely the products of studio manipulation, not memorable singing — the computer-gargled “heureusement” in “L’Enfer”, for example, or the digital echo chamber of “bye bye”s in the title song. Which brings us back to the album’s most glaring faux pas: Clément’s voice. If Biolay’s rock dreams are to be fulfilled, rest assured he won’t be riding his sister’s coattails when it happens. Her voice is too thin, too mannered, too European. That aforementioned sweetly off-kilter melody in “Mais Pourtant” is nearly wrecked by Clément’s inability to handle her business vocally (fortunately it’s a duet with Daniel Lorca of Nada Surf, who saves the day with his Gainsbourg impression).
The thin/mannered/European knock isn’t a necessarily a fatal flaw — Sarah Nixey has a similar voice, and her records with Black Box Recorder are great. But Nixey’s band complements and exploits her vocal deficiencies with commensurately delicate music. Clément should be so lucky; sexy though her voice can be, the more noise Biolay layers behind it, the more ridiculous it sounds. Bye Bye Beauté has some very good tunes, for sure. But Clément’s voice is so precious and fussed-with you’ll wish that you-know-who was still around to rough up those tunes with that ugly, alcoholic croak of his.