Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Dø - Both Ways Open Jaws (2011) REVIEW

French music business shows a long tradition of pop duos. Serge Gainsbourg's multiple duos, mainly with actresses Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, are the first examples at hands, that of a male musical mastermind, often multi-instrumentist, and a sexy doll of a singer. Stone et Charden could be another example, more or less. That formula really exploded during the eighties, first with Elli et Jacno then later with the excellent Les Rita Mitsouko and the rather underestimated Niagara, among others. In the later years, male/male duos got the upper hand with world famous Daft Punk and Air, and to a lesser extend AaRON. The Dø looks like a band, the 'The' part in the name offers that illusion, but they are a duo of French multi-instrumentist and mastermind Dan Levy and Finnish cute looking singer Olivia Bouyssou Merilahti : D for Dan, ø for Olivia, it's that simple. 
Do is also the alpha and the omega of the musical scale. There is nothing much more to tell about this except that it sounds good.

The Dø is something of a miracle. They are still practically unknown internationally, except maybe for their extremely catchy if completely alien to any sort of radio friendly charts song "On My Shoulders". It was just played everywhere possible, in the underground, in commercials, on every radios, any TV channels, wherever. The music business didn't see it coming, even in a long while, because this thing has absolutely nothing to be compared with any sort of hype or trends or fashion : a near lo-fi driven guitar melody, a sloppy drums pattern and mostly those sulky highpitched girl vocals, it almost sounds like an even lazier Pavement fronted by a moody girl-next-door who has been brought by force into the studio. How such a thing became that huge a hit single is mindboggling and beyond me. But fact is, that song is extremely intoxicating and still sounds fresh after having listened to it hundreds of time. Let's dare the word, it's a classic. Besides, this song propulsed their first album "A Mouthful" on top of the French charts in 2008, making them the first French act singing in English to reach that position. And what about that first album?

First thing first, this isn't a manufactured product coming out of some illminded perverse huge music corporation. If everything that album almost sounds handmade, with bits and pieces, songs built with what objects comes around, quite like these chairs we can witness on that first album cover (1). Of course, the people who were expecting to listen to "On My Shoulders" variations must have been very disappointed and let's bet that album must make secondhand record shops' owners desperate. And it's a shame because that album is one of the most promising and genuine stuff coming out of France in a long time. Formally, this album reminds me of The White Stripes' debut album in 1999 : DIY punk mentality, huge spontaneity, lots of energy, many great ideas, several good songs and some fillers, but even these fillers are just a consequence of their enthusiasm, they couldn't stop themselves from banging and strumming whatever looks like a instrument all over the place, but in a rather soft way in The Dø's case. And somewhere like The White Stripes showed a pretty gifted guitarist in Jack White, The Dø's got a very proficient multi instrumentist with jazz backgrounds in Dan Levy, and it's slightly obvious when listening to that record. And then there is Olivia Merilahti's muse like voice, who possesses an almost actress ability to impersonate whatever mood each song requires.

"Both Ways Open Jaws", The Dø's sophomore album, is a more focused and ambitious effort, but the duo succeeds to keep that lightness of touch and most of the spontaneity of their debut. In order to keep that freshness, they decided to leave Paris studios for a house in the Luberon, South of France, which was once owned by French actor Maurice Ronet, filled a truck with their instruments and other machines, not knowing if there was electricity and if the space will sound good enough. They wanted to put themselves in some creative danger, get rid off of habits and reflex actions. They quite failed for the later, which is fortunate because this new album is undoubtfully The Dø's.

The opening song "Dust If Off", its title, is a fine introduction to the record, surely if you know this above mentioned anecdote because one could see the band dusting the house off before really taking their quarters. A surprising song, just a very repetitive pattern quickly topped by Olivia's almost a cappella voice, the texture slowly thickens with vocals and a few synths overdubbing punctuated by some electronic beats. At the very beginning of this track, one can hear Olivia inhalating a little bit too soon before singing and it shows already a band which refuses to rub it out. They recorded an even better version of that haunting and charming song for (2). One of the best songs on this album which contains a whole lot of them : from the cubist orchestral near prog rock jamboree of "The Wicked and The Blind" to the second track and marimba coloured in between the most accessible Captain Beefheart and nowadays Red Krayola "Gonna Be Sick!", without the odd rhythm signature but with that typical The Dø mood, sloppy and focused, lofi and colourful, Olivia sounding as charmingly stubborn as ever, through the totally percussion driven single "Slippery Rope", some sibling of Lykke Li's "Get Some". The highlights are so numerous that it would be needed to underline near each track on this album. Some other favorites are "Bohemian Dances", that walking beat intro and Olivia's entering softly hymn-like to get shortly after into a very intoxicating "I’m doing my best boy, I’m doing my best boy, I’m doing my best boy whatever the price" ritornello; Cat Power's Chan Marshall is showing furtively her shadow but it looks more like some hallucination. The most touching song on the record is "Leo Leo", its repetitive harp chord, whistling synths and Olivia singing on the top of her throat; she joins fellow northerner like Norwegian Hanne Hukkelberg and even Icelandic Björk on her most fragile, most lovely and at the same time little scary: it's a Grimm fairytale of some sort, and a space age bolero. Some songs are less memorable like the obvious "Too Insistent", which could make a good single though, "Smash Them All (Night Visitors)" with its nevertheless surprising funky TV serie intro and bridge to get into acoustic slacker Big Star to Pavement with strings, the song melody being quite mediocre. Even Olivia, otherwise so inhabited by her 'acting', doesn't seem too convinced by it.

The real 'little star' (thinking of Swedish Stina Nordenstam's song) is obviously Olivia Bouyssou Merilahti who's got some incredible charisma and versatility in her however fragile voice. There are moments she's such a master of voice ranges, getting as high as possibly be like on the opener "Dust it Off", that it seems almost forced, or acted, when you hear her hesitating here or break between two notes there, but I'll leave the shadow of a doubt thinking of Joanna Newsom in a completely different register. The second star is the arrangement and orchestration for all the songs. At first, it seems almost coincidental but it works too well to be just so, just like Olivia's vocals. There's a lot of work behind that thing but it sounds so incredibly organic and again fragile with all its layers and colours, that it seems thought of right before the recording. In a similar way, with totally different result, their process makes me think of another imaginative duo The Fiery Furnaces, they are definitely no pop band, The Dø is no rock band by the way, but they share that sort of joyful experimental approach to music which makes both bands so colourful and apprently chaotic. This album is also a grower, everyting falls into places listen after listen, discovering each time something new, something unheard before, a subtlety here, a deep sadness there, and it becomes ultimately a musical object to cherish, if not to adore, a bit like a kid would feel when stumbling upon a teddy bear with a missing eye : its very imperfection makes it even more precious because unique, and its his/her only.


  • A Mouthful (2008) (2010 in the US) - 6

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