Louis Philippe: An Unknown Spring
It’s pretty rare for an artist to go from “never heard of him” to “indispensable” in my book, but it just happened with Louis Philippe. He’s been making music for twenty years or so, but for some reason, undoubtedly having to do with the fact that he works in an unfashionable style, he remains little known. I only know of him because of the valiant (and persuasive) efforts of the eMusic subscriber who calls himself PapaLazarou to draw attention to him. PapaLazarou drew me in by connecting Louis Philippe to The Clientele.
What’s the unfashionable style? Well, for starters, it’s a very highly polished sort of pop music that owes more to Bacharach and David than the Beatles. I’m not a pop music historian and there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge, but it seems to me that the very careful and sophisticated craftsmanship in songwriting practiced by, say, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer almost disappeared sometime in the ‘60s; the same is true of the sophisticated arrangement and production seen in some of the classic Frank Sinatra albums of the ‘50s. Bacharach and David were in the same basic tradition and succeeded in the ‘60s by adding a rock flavor to songs that were not rock-and-roll at all. And there were a few soft-rock groups who may have aspired to continue in that mode. But for the most part rock crowded it out, and rock’s origins in folk and blues made it relatively primitive almost by definition. Artists who might have been capable of the same technical achievement had different aims.
Louis Philippe’s work harks back to that mid-‘60s attempt to incorporate a bit of rock instrumentation into a songwriting tradition that owes far more to Cole Porter than to the blues. In fact it owes the blues, and country, approximately nothing. Philippe is a Frenchman who moved to England as a young man, and I have a vague idea that French pop music of the ‘60s may have sometimes sounded something like his arrangements.
Whether or not that sounds appealing to you, anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting really ought to hear this album. I don’t know of anyone today writing at this level of craftsmanship, unless some of the people still writing musicals are capable of it. Last week I was praising the matching of words to music in songs co-written by Rupert Hine and Jeanette Obstoj (see last week’s review), but they’re clumsy in comparison to Philippe. His matching of the musical to the lyrical phrase is flawless, truly in a class with Porter and Mercer: there’s no cramming of too many syllables into the musical phrase, and no awkward dragging out of a word to fill it up. To an almost astonishing degree the natural spoken rhythm of the words follows the accents of the music.
None of that would matter if the tunes and the words weren’t good, and they’re superb. The melodies are inventive, complex, and graceful; the lyrics are intelligent, coherent, and poetic. Some listeners might be put off by the arrangements, which are light, pretty, and lush, and which feature strings and breathy choirs of backing voices and in general the sort of instrumentation one hears in some ‘60s soft pop. But the effect is not sugary at all. The word “exquisite” comes to mind, but that almost implies “effete,” and that would be way off base. Nor is there the least hint of irony that would make the whole thing seem fey; the album seems as genuine as it is elaborate, and as intelligent as it is romantic. There’s a sort of tensile strength in the melodies that gives the music a core of strength, as if it were built on a frame of some light but very strong metal.
Listen for yourself at eMusic. Here is an overview of the man and his work at All Music Guide. And here’s his web site, where you can find downloads of some complete tracks, although as of right now none from this album. I’m going to be hearing a lot more of Louis Philippe; I’ve already gotten Azure from eMusic.
UPDATE: For a richer description, please read Chris Evans's AMG review. Sample: "...an album of pure melody, melody untrammeled and unconfined by the conventions of what passes for modern popular music, melody that unfurls gracefully, languorously and then, when you think it can't help but fold in on itself, unfurls a little more.On first hearing, this can be somewhat daunting. Not because An Unknown Spring can in any way be described as a tough listen, but because our cosseted ears simply aren't used to processing melodies that don't ingratiate themselves by means of repetition or overfamiliar resolutions. A delectable turn of phrase that might pass for a chorus or a hook drifts past and you wait confidently for a reassuring reprise. But it never comes: instead, the melody just carries on evolving."Pre-TypePad