Sebastien Schuller: Happiness

Electro-acoustic ballads from a French-American singer-songwriter are perfect for a rainy day.

Sebastien Schuller


Label: Minty Fresh
US Release Date: 2006-09-26
UK Release Date: 2005-03-07

There are so many sensitive singer-songwriter types putting records out these days that you have to do something really different to stand out. I feel hardened saying it, but gorgeousness just isn't enough any more.

If you want to mix electronica with your acoustic ballads, there are bands who've taken it all the way in their own ways (Psapp, some Kinobe) and those who've almost perfected the melding of the two (Syd Matters, for one). Thom Yorke is the godfather of this whole scene -- you get the sense of there being hordes of musicians who can't quite find it in themselves to be as alienated and as absolute as Yorke, but are desperately wishing that they could.

Catch you in the right mood, and the opening "1978", a gentle synth arpeggio-driven instrumental, can totally sweep you away. So simple, its electric piano melody repeats, building the soundtrack to a desolate field over a shuffling beat recalling the Au Revoir Simone song "Through the Backyards". The same percussive effect is used on a number of songs throughout the album, most successfully on "Sleeping Song", and the drum machine sound doesn't satisfy the same way live drums could. Still, it captures the mood well enough.

The best song on the album is the first single, "Weeping Willow". The video shows Schuller walking around with a white paper mask over his face, a single tear drawn on in black marker. The image finds its way onto the CD's cover, too. Well, it's an accurate encapsulation of the artist's emotional resonance: sorrow, loneliness, desolation under a cloudy sky. Lost in an unforgiving city. Fun stuff like that. "Weeping Willow", though, is genuinely great: Schuller's lisping, thin tenor voice is incomparably fragile, and precious -- you can't help caring it seems so easily hurt.

Though he's got an easy gift of melody, Schuller's low-key approach to songwriting sometimes lacks the strong hooks that create immediate interest. For every "Sleeping Song" (gorgeous, linked phrases, intoxicating atmosphere) there's a "Ride Along the Cliff" (turned-down Air impression, passable). Radiohead is obviously a key influence, as closer "Le Dernier Jour" illustrates, being basically a low-key "No Surprises" impression, making you reflect how easily compelling music can slip into irrelevance. The excursions into purer electronica sounds ("Where We Had Never Gone", e.g.) also seem a little half-hearted. The artist's voice is his biggest asset, and the most compelling element of Schuller's sound, so twisting it out of recognition with echoes doesn't really work.

On the whole, though, Schuller's music achieves a simple sort of emotional resonance. He's firmly within-genre, and there's really only so much melancholy electro-tinged singer-songwriter we can take. But if you're in the market, well, Sebastien Schuller gets the job done as well as anyone. If you're really not careful, you could let the Play-era Moby-esque looping acoustic fairytale sounds whip you up into texting an ex-girlfriend, say, asking them out for a drink. That's a terrible idea; listening to Happiness, not such a bad idea at all.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.