The introductory bars of this album already strike me as familiar. A sequence of electronic flourishes played through an antediluvian keyboard starts the opening composition, ‘Orca’, and I recognise that, as a child of the seventies, it sounds like the theme to some long-forgotten science fact show a lá the spoof ‘Look Around You’, or perhaps more seriously, an Open University programme on BBC2 from 1975 where everything on the screen is a variation of mustard and the host’s look is bang on trend in 2015. Beard: check. Glasses: check. It’s an agreeable start that makes me feel right at home from the outset, but the familiarity is short-lived.
One knows from Nicolas Godin’s principle musical project, nineties downtempo progenitors and Gallic sexy boys Air, that his debut solo album ‘Contrepoint’ is going to be an electronic LP of sorts, and of course very French, but little can prepare one for what comprises the first two minutes and twenty five seconds of this record. This is no opener in the style of ‘La Femme D’Argent’ from ‘Moon Safari’, that’s for sure. After a minute of swelling strings and stabbing rock guitar jabs Godin suddenly hurls the listener head first into a maelstrom of harsh Baroque electro-din that is at once reminiscent of both those super-annoying handheld computer games of the late 80’s and the public school progressive rock technical brilliance of ‘Giant Hogweed’ Gabriel-era Genesis. Nicolas certainly is a Game Boy. Discharging this discordant opening track as the first single (its video directed by the brother of Fleet Fox Robin Pecknold) initially made me consider that the remainder of the album might be in the same vein. This would be a little too much for me to take to be honest, but to my relief (and no doubt that of my dozing wife in the next room as I write this) the other seven arrangements presented here bear scant, if any, resemblance to this cacophonous initial volley. Believe me, this is a good thing. If my ears could talk, they’d surely thank me. It’s a wonderfully barmy little song that leaves one scratching one’s head in astonishment, but forty minutes of similar absurdity would be enough to drive anyone insane, not to mention dreaming of Super Mario until the End of Days.
Much has been made about the fact that ‘Contrepoint’ is based on Nicolas Godin’s appreciation of the works of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and in particular the late Canadian pianist extraordinaire Glenn Gould’s staccatissimo interpretations of the German maestro’s famed polyphonic textures which resulted in Gould’s classic multi-million selling 1955 debut album ‘The Goldberg Variations’. Classical fans of counterpoint (the texturally independent musical lines that come together interdependently to create a polyphonic harmony despite often being different in rhythm and contour – hence the album title) will enjoy spotting Johann’s influences on the album. It is of note that Bach also often borrowed from French music of the Renaissance and this is possibly a factor that drew Godin to his work. Though the foundation of ‘Contrepoint’’s intricate leitmotifs are most definitely rooted in Bach’s immaculate canon, to the layman this correlation is merely insignificant, nor is it particularly necessary to identify in order to appreciate the music Godin has created here. Indeed, several of the tracks contain nothing more than a solitary line or theme from a Bach cantata, and there is much for devotees of Air’s romantic lazy chill-out room vibe to rejoice in, from the dusky Francois Hardy and Astrud Gilberto-like French seductress-vocals of ‘Widerstehe doch der sünde’, to the instrumental jazz of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five-ish ‘Club Nine’ with its tantalising false outro. Smoky Paris nightclub brushed snare drums share centre stage with piano and vibes taking turns caressing the listener into a wonderful half-conscious dream-state before funky synths The Prisoner-era Herbie Hancock would be proud of bubble to the surface to create an imaginary soundtrack to a 70’s detective show, most likely set in San Francisco.
The following number, ‘Clara’, invites the listener, after a repetitive Police-style guitar lick of all things, into the easy-listening territory of the two Charles: Aznavour and Trenet, or perhaps even ‘Songs From The Last Century’-era George Michael, albeit a heterosexual Mr Panayiotou crooning in a sensual French accent about the woman he loves/lusts over a combination of late night saccharine Hammond organ, piano, and delicate strings, while nursing a scotch and loosening his bow-tie. Subsequently, it’s an utterly enchanting and impossibly romantic little tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on say, ‘Getz/Gilberto’. If only this writer knew a Clara. He’d play this to her every single day.
‘Glenn’, Godin’s clearest paean to the work of Gould on ‘Contrepoint’, briefly reintroduces the electro keyboards-sounding-like-electric guitars of opener ‘Orca’, while the long dead Canadian player’s sampled voice chatters away Giorgio Moroder/Daft Punk-style, discussing sound engineers and studio practises over choppy violins and contrapuntal piano lines which then segue delightfully into a brief mechanised segment sounding not entirely unlike the exhausted and spent comedown of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ from ‘Purple Rain’.
‘Bach Off’, the penultimate track on ‘Contrepoint’, is perhaps the most recognisably ‘Baroque’ track on the album. Harpsichord-heavy to start, it develops into exalted Glistening Glyndebourne-style percussive flourishes which jostle with the ghost of Fela Kuti’s Africa ‘70 saxophones bouncing around the edges of a ever-so-slightly ominous piano motif replete with washes of brass and some genuinely brilliant funk drumming, which ultimately leads into a full-on Hammer Horror-esque final minute. It’s fabulous, and by now you wonder why it’s taken an artist with the clear chutzpah of Godin twenty years to release his first solo album of ‘non-dance’ material.
It’s inevitable that some comparisons to his work with Air will be made by some, and at times similarities are definitely recognisable, but it’s to Godin’s credit that he is able to simultaneously make reference to the Hipster’s Composer of Choice who died nearly three hundred years ago, while still sounding refreshingly relevant to a modern market. ‘Contrepoint’ manages to sound like nothing else around at the moment in pop music (let’s face it, Chanteurs and Chanteuses are pretty thin on the ground in 2015, it has to be said) and for that Godin is to be applauded. The album is not without its flaws however. Being fluent in French would definitely be advantageous to some listeners as several of the vocal tracks are sung in Godin’s native tongue, and at times the record can often slip a little too easily into kitschy 1970’s FM radio mode, but all in all it’s a only a couple of minor grievances as it’s all so darn appealing.
The collection’s closing number ‘Elfe Man’ is the closest one gets to a ‘Virgin Suicides’-era Air track, with dainty musical box notes, Disneyesque glockenspiels, plucked strings, a simply gorgeous bass trombone and a wordless choir which closes out the album with an air of dignified grace.
Taken as a whole, ‘Contrepoint’ adds a strong classical sensibility and musical intelligence to Nicolas Godin’s oeuvre, as well as showcasing an artist with a propensity for creating songs that often defy easy contemporary categorisation. I have a feeling both Johann and Glenn would have liked this record. To put it simply, it’s a little Gallic treasure.