Cool is a generally a horrible word to use, particularly in conjunction with music. It evokes painful memories of the mid 00s and NME running their annual ‘Cool List’, where you could see whichever member of the Libertines was then flavour of the month rubbing shoulders with other now-forgotten indie scenesters. That said, for the entirety of my first listen to French duo Papooz’s latest record, I couldn’t stop the word ‘cool’ from hovering at the edge of my thoughts.
For this is a record which is both consistently and defiantly uncool in the musical terrain that it stomps, and also one that reeks of cool in its execution. It has become a cliche of reviewing certain French bands that the reviewer is obliged to use the word cool (synonyms will also do – hello ‘chic’.) at least once in their copy. I’m fairly sure I’ve been guilty of it in the past. But the thing about cliches is that they spring into being for a reason. People don’t describe Francoise Hardy or Serge Gainsbourg as cool out of contractual obligation. When you look at them, it is just self-evident. Case in point: Johnny Hallyday may have been French but he was certainly not cool, at least not to anybody outside France.
And in many of those cases, that coolness sprung not from a slavish adherence to the latest trends, to whatever was modish at the time, but rather from an artist’s single-minded desire to play the kind of music that appealed to them. It is that impulse that makes Papooz such an appealing proposition. The musical waters they swim in are not cool. Theirs is a smooth, glossy blend of MOR, pop jazz, bossa nova and 60s folk. Get it wrong, and you’ve got the music for a Marks and Spencer advert.
Instead, they manage to blend these potentially anodyne elements into lushly orchestrated, joyously upbeat songs. The production helps them. Throughout, buttery soft slide guitar provides texture, on ‘I’d Rather Be the Moon’, the disco guitar shimmers, and on songs like ‘White Roses’ and ‘Twilight of Your Mind’ they make use of gorgeous, swooning backing vocals to add depth to the choruses.
Within this framework, they manage to craft a range of moods and emotions, somehow striking at genuine rather than seeming ironic or posturing. ‘Hell of a Woman’ is a beautiful torch song, looking back on the embers of a spent relationship with the speaker still in awe of their lost partner, whilst ‘Morning Sonata’ captures the fragile honesty of midnight promises meant honestly but soon to be broken. Throughout, the melodies are expertly crafted, but stay just the right side of the emotional/clinical side of the songwriting divide. This never feels like artists just showing off their ability to craft a tune.
This won’t be for everyone, but for those willing to give in to the smokey, midnight vibes, there is a lot in these gorgeous pop songs to enjoy. Give it a whirl!
Words by Will Collins