Now in his 60s, Paolo Conte boasts a singer/songwriter career that has lasted almost a quarter of a century. That said, he’s a relative newcomer to the US, with a recording history that is barely five years old. The aspect I find to be most respectable is that Conte does not compromise his style to win over his target audience. He may be pitching to the US, but he’s Italian and he’ll be damned if he’s going to start singing in English.
Everything about Reveries, the new album, harks of Conte’s trademark style. This is not surprising since none of the songs are entirely new, but then they’re not entirely old either. Most have been rerecorded with new arrangements, and four are taken from two previous albums, Aguaplano and Novecento. There is a smart strategy at work here. Conte has spruced up old hits to introduce to the American audience before he turns around and bounces them back to Europe in the form of an imported album.
Conte’s got a gruff, some call smoky, but short of husky voice that, at first glance, seems to go hand in hand with the jacket cover. He sits with his legs crossed on the edge of a park bench with a weathered face that looks broodingly across one shoulder. It creates the impression of a hard-edged, moody singer whose temperment seems as gray as the cover. The reality is, in fact, the opposite. His voice may be gruff, but it’s far from sounding surly. He’s been likened to Leonard Cohen, and that seems about right. Conte sounds quite unpretentious and effortless, not to mention he’s got that added laid-back Italian attitude that translates into an easy-going swing, with an almost constant rubato timing when he sings. The instances when he sings concurrently with the band, such as on the rumba track “Dancing”, his “da-da-da-da-da” scats are just ever so slightly out of time. The result is endearing, it’s like he’s just going for a walk in the park, meandering along at his own pace.
There is more to Conte than the European appeal. He’s got a charisma that takes you through the moods that the different song styles project. From seductive to comical, from reflective to energetic, the driving force behind the songs is his personality. Aside from singing seductively in Italian and occasionally French (understanding the lyrics is, of course, arbitrary), another aspect of Conte’s personality that really draws you to him is his sense of humor. It’s whimsical and jocular, magnified when he breaks out the kazoo and when he chuckles on songs such as the cabaret-style track “Novecento”, in time to the music, no less. The impishness that’s so hard to resist comes through in the multiple musical styles that he seems to have adopted and modified for his own. He’s got all kinds of things going on, from ballads to tango to jazz to chanson, taking you on a spin around the world.
The album begins in a languorous manner with the title track, “Reveries”, to get you in the mood. The only track to be sung in French, Conte reminisces what it was like to be a child. The accompaniment is sparse and haunting, with a baritone saxophone that seems molded on Conte’s gravelly voice and a soft piano background. Before you get too settled into the mood, the third track, “Dancing”, spins a tumbling rumba, but before you know it, you’re back to a walk in France for the evocative chanson, “Madeleine”, followed by a tipsy tango. Overall, the album moves between slow saunters down the garden path and energetic trips to far off places, to “Sudamerica”, for example. Conte won’t take no for an answer, so let yourself go.