Benjamin Biolay ‘Palermo, Hollywood’ 2LP/CD (Blue Wrasse/Riviera) 4/5

benjamin-biolayFrench popular music, like the French language, is currently in a state of flux and in urgent need of external influences to broaden its appeal beyond the already initiated. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Benjamin Biolay is one of the leading lights of a new generation that are not afraid to call upon musical support and influences beyond the Hexagone, while simultaneously building upon what has gone before and this is Biolay’s tenth album in total and it very much meets its ambitious and even lofty objectives. In the leader’s case, the talk over technique that Serge Gainsbourg deployed from the mid-1970s onwards is Biolay’s principal mode of communication with a gentle nod to film soundtracks instrumentation, but that is where the comparison ends because Biolay is very much his own man. If anything, the roots side to Gotan Project with a slow electro beat seems to have served as a part inspiration here and a musical journey that begins in Paris, moves over to Buenos Aires, before coming back to have a final French touch imprinted upon it. The Spanish refer to this in reference to modern flamenco as ‘iba y vuelta’ (coming and going) and Biolay is to be commended for bringing together these disparate elements and still making it his own. This writer warmed to the juxtaposition of drum beat and strings on ‘Tendresse année zéro’, or the Latin jazz flavours of ‘Palermo Soho’ with a touch of Morricone, where guest singer and Peruvian actress Sofia Wilhelmi, duets with the leader. Cumbia and dub collide head on for ‘Palermo Queens’ with a female dialogue in Spanish. Three singles have been released in France thus far with ‘Miss Miss’ featuring the fine accordion playing of Nuevo tango musician Martin Ferres. Of the ballads on offer, ‘Pas sommeil’ is a lovely, melodic number with horns and orchestrations that recall Burt Bacharach, and the title of ‘Ballade française’ pretty much says it all. Argentine popular culture is inserted into Borges Futbol Club’ with a sample of football commentary over a 1960s style orchestration that sounds as if it came out of the ‘Ipcress file’. All in all, an extremely worthwhile project that will be a welcome discovery to those francophiles in the UK and beyond who are searching for music that is respectful of the French chanson tradition, but adds something different and is heading in a new and exciting avenue. A previous 2009 album, ‘La superbe’, is well worth investigating and the current album is equally available in double vinyl format for those willing to search out a specialist French music retailer.

Tim Stenhouse