Having thundered down a decent wodge of the French vernacular while schooling, I’ve a fair hunch at the cut of this record’s cigar-and-monocle jib. I should probably just ask somebody - someone fluent in the language - but to me it seems that for all Ensemble’s musical bombast, the en français grumbles of mainman Olivier Alary are simply paeans to the birds and the trees and ’skies so blue’, et-fucking-cetera. And you might wonder: if that were the case, would it matter? But hey, let’s cut to the chase: this already feels like the most beautiful and beautifully disjointed album of the year, en français or otherwise.
Ensemble is crafting pure, modern chamber pop with enough bombastic flourishes that this latest album, Excerpts, hits all the right spots early on. From the first strains of strings, the appropriately titled Opening engages album-defining instrumentation. That strong approach, with lush strings and harpsichord gently ebbing and flowing throughout, moulds raw pop songwriting into something that’s more than just palatable.
Montréal native Olivier Alary plainly titles his ongoing musical project Ensemble, but the French-born composer’s second album, Excerpts, tries to steers away from rote genre exercises. His mesmeric and quicksilver flights of fancy take him to frosty chanson francaise, balmy chamber-pop, and ambient, organic electronica. An overarching lyrical thesis -- even if shrouded by barriers of language -- is that memory is an ephemeral and, thus, a cherished article.
Ensemble is the current nom de plume of Olivier Alary, French-born, Montreal-based composer. You may recognize his name as one of a few contributors to Björk's Medulla, where he served as both a co-writer and remix artist. Or, you might have heard the score he provided for 2009's Last Train Home, a well-received Chinese film about a family of peasants journeying to be reunited.
“They come, they go / Things I forget” go the very first set of lyrics on Ensemble’s new album Excerpts. This noncommittal shrug of wishy-washiness is a pretty good portrayal of French-born musician Olivier Alary’s artistic nature. This is the kind of electronic indie music that is all about putting on a game face but never really taking a swing.
Ensemble is the brainchild of Frenchman Olivier Alary, a Renaissance man of sorts, whose 2000 debut album’s whimsical orchestral arrangements and delectable pop melody caught the ear of everybody’s favorite enigma, Bjork. Two Bjork remixes released as Sketch Proposal B-sides and a co-written song on her 2004 album later, this friendship launched Ensemble’s name to moderate popularity. The symphonic opus followup album, Ensemble, dropped in 2006, continuing in the same vein.
Past and present combine for post-classical dream pop. Wyndham Wallace 2011 Montreal-based Olivier Alary has friends in high places. His eponymous 2006 album featured contributions from Cat Power and Lou Barlow and, as well as working with Björk on a track for 2004’s Medulla and remixing two of her songs, he’s also composed music for installations at museums and galleries like the V&A and the Centre Pompidou.
On Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla, Ensemble’s Olivier Alary assisted in co-writing “Desired Collection” with the Icelandic singer. And while it’s Björk’s magnificent voice that sparkles over the corruptive synth-line that sounds like something off The Eraser, pleading, “How am I going to make it right?” the presence of Alary stands out on one of that album’s most direct songs. The sheer essence of it, the understated use of electronics and layering of Björk’s voice over the verses, commanded a delicate hand and Alary notably delivered.