One could spend a lot of time looking for a particular method to the madness of singer and guitarist Frànçois on his third album. Whether it’s a purposeful mistranslation of a track name from English to French (Be Water becomes Je Suis De L’eau) or the wilfully obscure way in which the album seems like a scrapbook of ramshackle pop tunes with wildly diverse influences, there are certainly enough loose ends to get wrapped up in.
First is the false chronology. Yes, it appears after his recent Domino disc E Volo Love – yet Plaine Inondable (meaning ‘floodplain’) was released in 2009 on King Creosote’s Fence Records and re-appears with new artwork as the only curveball.
Second is the ‘secret Basque choir’ that Frànçois recruits to sing on the album. Returning to the comforts of his hometown of Saintes in France to record the disc, he claims to have recruited members of Unkle Jelly Fish and Bost Gehio (an all-female polyphonic vocal group from the Basques country) to be his ‘Atlas Mountains’. These enigmatic ladies are used sparingly and often quite subtly, so they must be up to something nefarious, right?
And third, there is the bizarre way that the tunes shift from their crystal-clear recording quality full of analogue warmth, such as on hushed opener Friends, to the lo-fi answering phone-feel of closer Pic-Nic. Just listen to the wind before Frànçois’ guitar kicks in. And when he starts singing, it’s hard not to recall Devendra Banhart’s wild and nomadic first Young God recordings.
All of this may make good pub banter, but ultimately it’s the songs that count. And more importantly, none of these talking points should overshadow Frànçois’ incredible guitar playing. Whether it’s on an acoustic or electric, the work of his six-string sets the scene for the majority of the songs, often with the trademark quirk of opening with a slow strum before the tune picks up pace and volume along the way. And as a technique to build songs, it gives the tune a clear trajectory giving them an arc of progress before finding an eventual resolution. Or in the case of the shapeshifting Wonder, which turns midway from friendly ditty to dark lullaby, the final guitar chord peters out into the ether offering one last shimmering ray of light. But it’s when the album reaches its gooey centre on Remind (again with a low-key intro of a slow-motion solo electric guitar riff) that Frànçois lets rip.
Drawing on the cyclical guitar lines most often associated with music from Mali – think Ali Farka Touré or Tinariwen – he creates a gorgeous web of stabs and spikes that refuse to let go of your ears until you fall headlong into his murmured crooning. Is he telling an Alice In Wonderland-style story of physical transformation as he sings: “Once you go through/ And there he went there he went”? Who knows? But the shrieking guitar feedback thrown on top of his finger-picking and the distant tap-tap of the percussion create a compelling sense of revelation, ecstasy and danger.
In a departure from his previous discs, Frànçois leaves the Casio beats and lo-fi electronics to one side as he pares it back to voices, his axe and some understated drumming. And the overall impression it creates is one of an elusive meaning just out of sight with plenty of moments of surprise and delight to capture the most stubborn of imaginations.