Benoît Pioulard

Précis

(Kranky; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 28 November 2007

Much will be made of Benoît Pioulard’s relatively young age -- the tender, impressionably spry conglomeration of twenty-two years -- and while the fact’s initially a shallow precursor to a gorgeous little album, the mention is apt: Pioulard (real name Thomas Meluch) is just too damn good at sublimating suffocating walls of sound into easily digestible bits of folk and avant-acoustic, just too damn young for the kind of years it takes to hone that kind of touch and to wrangle that kind of breadth of noise. “Little” is a shallow but informative precursor, too; for all of the stolen clips and unfathomable shades of production, Précis (“Precise”) is just that, a shuddering collection of short and detailed tinkerings with traditional pop structures and subject matter. In fact, that contradiction, between the massive, nameless glee of pastiche and the restraint of pop, leaves Meluch in a kind of dubious gray zone. Is it important to keep in mind that “Coup de Foudre,” insular storm of interstice, works mostly on vocal loops from a Dictaphone recording of a Bollywood movie? Does it matter there’s a hot air balloon buried somewhere inside Scale (2006)? Yes, because as Mark’s explained, the recontextualization of disparate found sound into a flattened hierarchy of lush pop instrumentation can be both political comment and a Möbius strip of a challenge for the listener; and no, because as Mark’s explained, shit can just sound right, no matter how deeply one dissects.

The gray doesn’t end there. While the longest cut on Précis is no more than three and a half minutes, each track is brimming with muscles of tension. And while Pioulard’s pace is often languorous, slow-burning and mountainous to a hyper-aware degree, moments of catharsis are too precious a conclusion for Meluch to allow more than once or twice. The effect, then, is both eye-dilating and infuriating. From the onset, with “La Guerre de Sept Ans” and a panicked amassing of stringed ringing, synth, optimistic bass, and pummeling static, the mortar growing louder and louder signifies a powerful force and an inevitable breakdown, but each bit coalesces into a bulk so opaque that the sum of its parts doesn’t amount to a sum at all. As becomes more apparent later in the album, the overload of instrumentation, the layers of ambience on melody on percussion, sandwiches of experimental arrangements panning ear to ear, up and down, emerging and escaping, obsolescing out from the listener’s nose hole like infinitely mirrored sine waves, these are overwhelming even when minutely pieced together, so much so that many of Meluch’s deft touches are, presumably, completely lost. Of course, this makes for a rewarding return, an audiophile’s dream set in sometimes nightmarish barrages of dirgeful mood, but even the patient and technologically adept will possibly feel cheated by the threads of musical narrative shunted or hinted at and then killed.

Boy, can those threads be sweet little monsters, though. “Palimend,” a shuffling patter of staccato dulcimer and worried moans, sounds at first as if split between a bipolar, muddled snare, a percussive halo that in actuality is a Radio Shack mic banged around inside a plastic coffee can. Hear those slight scrapes? “Needle & Thread” has cemetery arpeggios and bassy probably-strings in the forefront, hogging all the melodramatic attention, but the downright creepiest part of it is all the white noise juxtaposed with the marching beat. It turns out the byte’s a conversation on a “deserted” Coney Island boardwalk, an almost superfluous fact if not for the song’s wailed but excruciatingly brief release, a moment earned only through the tension in the white noise itself. How about that migraine of a ripping noise at the end of “Hirondelle” that sets the circulatory system upside down? Care of torn x-rays stolen from a doctor’s dumpster.

Yet, even with sonic candy jewelling every square inch of Précis, Benoît Pioulard makes folk/pop music. His voice, often hushed and overdubbed into pureed form, resembles the beaten simplicity of Elliott Smith, and his chord patterns and song structures are traditional enough to tether the rest of his specters to the campground. “Ash Into The Sky” is the perfect timeline of Tom’s strengths, descending vocal melodies limned with modicums of tiered verses, opening into a falsetto coda and howling electro noise. It’s the closest we’ll get to “normal” with Pioulard. Even his lyrics, mostly indiscernible, sometimes to the song’s detriment and sometimes not, are distorted half-images shying from half-realities. In “Together & Down” he sings, “There will be no moment of silence when I die / Only a moment of noise,” and that seems to characterize much of the artist’s intent. He battles with the passing of time, sensing both its wandering nature and its fevered bursts, focused on the inevitable end but afraid of how it will come. During “Hirondelle” he whispers between stark guitar repetition, “Like how the copper will turn green / showing time in a chromatic array / in passing ‘cause the spectrum’s lost its sheen / I hope I can age that gracefully.” The subjects are par for any metaphysical course, but Meluch has Shugo’d his words into subconscious fragments. Which, ya know, works for me, I guess.

Unfortunately, the album’s grandest drawback is in the distance created, at times, between instinct and craft. Pioulard’s on the way to studio wizardry, but for music so leaden with dreamscape intonation, the production can become monotonous and haughty. It pains me to say so, but where confusion reigns, purity should stand. Back off a bit, Benoît, I’m losing my way and I haven’t even digested a quarter of the oatmeal here. Otherwise, Précis is a masterful necropolis, intimidating to enter and beautifully crusted with age, but still burdened with all those fucking misplaced souls.