I first heard of Fránçois three years ago when he was touring as an auxiliary member of Camera Obscura. At the one-off show that I attended he performed solo as the opening act; a strange blend of French crooning over washed-out keyboards, synths and simple drum loops from what I remember. It was hard not to be charmed by the deceptively young-looking Frenchman (he’s in his thirties), so into his performance was he, that the people who had come to see a vibrant half-dozen-or-more strong band were completely won over by this sole stranger. Imagine my surprise years down the line when I find out the very same Fránçois has an album coming out on Domino Records and has his own band – the Atlas Mountains.
Ironically, the moments on E Volo Love that are most similar to what I saw him perform on that occasion are the strongest. Perhaps it’s not surprising; he already seemed to know the sound he was going for, and didn’t really need to add any more people to his music, and in doing so it seems he has only made it less spectacular. The first half of E Volo Love seems to play out exactly how Fránçois thinks we want a continental-sounding indie album to sound; equal parts bouncy and ornate while our man describes to us various romantic contrivances. On “Muddy Heart” he even seems to admit that that’s what he’s doing, repeating the line “I’m trying to please you” over and over in the chorus. Fránçois can get away with a certain amount due to his French accent, and kitschy lines like “I’m cooling down my furies with the blues / And blue is the colour you always choose,” or “something about your eyes is like a neon sign,” but after multiple listens songs like “Edge of Town” and “City Kiss” don’t seem to offer much more than pleasant indie with a few tricks borrowed from bands like Beirut, Grizzly Bear and their ilk.
However, much like a good wine, the album mellows out and becomes better. Beginning with the seventh track (of eleven) “Cherchant Des Ponts” (“Looking for Bridges”) the album becomes more subtle. On display are brush sticks, simple guitar picking, and strings that come and go gracefully instead of coming in huge washes. Altogether this brings about a more accomplished sound. Best of all, it puts Fránçois front and centre in a crooner-like role. It also helps that he’s singing in French. Later on, “Piscine”’s dramatic piano base doesn’t bode well for the song, but a divine transformation into a boudoir-bumping synthy dance meltdown makes it one of the strongest on offer.
“Slow Love” and “Bail Eternal” are the most fully-realized of Fránçois’ sound evolution. Both songs are based around gorgeous keyboard melodies and don’t really need much else to top them off, but “Slow Love” plucks at the heart strings with a sweeping-but-not-mawkish violin section, while “Bail Eternal” enlists the help of a choir of female singers to deliver the emotional punch. Both songs seem to stay true to Fránçois’ origins in music while perfectly incorporating some of the grander themes that seem flat in the earlier songs on the album.
E Volo Love seems like the sound of a young man who is so excited at the various different musicians and instruments that he has at his disposal that he’s over zealously thrown everything into the mix. While much of it falls by the wayside, some of it sticks, and in “Piscine,” “Bail Eternal” and “Slow Love” in particular – and in several moments elsewhere – we have evidence of a talented songwriter. Whether Fránçois actually needs “the Atlas Mountains” is questionable to me, since he is the true heart of this project and it is on those songs I’ve mentioned where this is the most clear. It’s just down to him now to isolate his true forte and turn it into a whole album.