Image Courtesy of Mélanie Pain
Review by Sheridan Morley
Mélanie Pain was always fascinated by the city of Manchester. In various interviews in support of her second full-length solo release, she has excitedly described growing up listening to the drones of Morrissey and fantasising about one day travelling to the city from which bands like The Smiths were able to draw such a level of profound inspiration. This is precisely what she did for a period of time in 2012, culminating in the release of Bye Bye Manchester.
The years of touring and collaborating with French new-wave covers act Nouvelle Vague have not only helped to springboard Mélanie into stardom in her own right, but seem to have somewhat influenced the direction of her music. Bye Bye Manchester, while superficially presented as an electro-pop extravaganza, is somehow darker, and somewhat further considered, than many modern releases of comparable genre. Mélanie cites, among her strongest musical influences, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Nick Drake and The Pixies; and has managed to transport the melancholic lyrical content and focus on texture that plucked such acts from obscurity to land on the pages of rock n’ roll history, while maintaining a simplicity of arrangement that really showcases Pain’s beautiful, innocent vocal.
Parts of Bye Bye Manchester could be mistaken to have been penned by the members of Massive Attack, but the hesitation to draw that conclusion would be in the album’s simplicity of arrangement which, it turns out, is courtesy of collaboration with Albin de la Simone (Vanessa Paradis, Iggy Pop). On the majority of tracks, there are fewer layers than a purely ‘electro’ album would warrant – instrumentally, what is there is only what is absolutely necessary, working seamlessly to transport the listener through Mélanie’s vocals to a place of pure bliss.
Certain tracks are pure, modern pop. “Just a Girl”, one of only four English-language tracks on the album, is the obvious choice for a mainstream, English-language single release. Clean, simplistic, programmed drums punctuate a ‘summer anthem’ indie guitar riff that could easily be accompanying a group of young, tanned girlfriends off to the beach in their brand new Japanese small car during the ad breaks of your favourite commercial TV show. Complete with ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dum’ sing-along to fade out, the track cements Pain’s pride of pop direction, in self-confessed contrast to the more electronic ambitions of Nouvelle Vague. The same clean, pop-driven elements can be recognised in catchy second track “Ailleurs (Ah Ah Ah)”.
An album of complete contrasts, Bye Bye Manchester’s next English offering is “Black Widow” – a beautifully-crafted merge of warped 60s surf-rock and Pain’s darker new-wave influences, including an unexpected (and substantial) cameo by Ed Harcourt. “Black Widow” is a perfect superimposition of the ‘cutesy’ personality of Mélanie’s vocals with the deeper vocals of Harcourt, against the song’s eerie subject matter, and forgoes full harmonies in the chorus in place of simple octaves. With lyrics like “Don’t you worry ‘bout your funeral baby, I’ve got a coffin with your name in flowers – being called a black widow all the time don’t matter with a heart as cold as mine”, the track is testament to Mélanie’s true ability to compose lyrics, in a language that is not her first, that can either elate or chill to the bone, depending on her mood at the time.
The rare treasure of an album such as Bye Bye Manchester is its ability to connect with listeners who may have no knowledge of the language spoken by its creator, and to communicate its emotional journey through dynamics, production, clever arrangements and a unique, talented vocalist. This is evident on such tracks as “Ca Grandit” – a pretty, plucked-acoustic guitar track wherein textural sound effects (a match being lighted, a cigarette being ashed) are layered around Mélanie’s softer, breathier vocals; cleverly adapted to the lower dynamic of the piece. “Je Laisse Tomber” is more urgent through its driving drums, full layers and frustrated vocal; while ‘Non’ sees Mélanie’s ethereal vocals intertwined with a clean, single-note electric guitar melody and carefully placed tongue and hand clicks to create a percussive base for a beautifully-crafted modern shuffle.
“Fluo” is a clear standout. A demanding ride cymbal and a melancholic chordal piano part accompany Pain’s professions of wanting to inject more fluorescent colour into her life – into her shoes, into her underwear. Not only are the track’s lyrics quirky and classic upon translation, its chorus – a complete pop-fuelled departure from the melancholy of the verses – features a theramin as its instrument of choice for the main hook. A perfect combination of moodiness and eccentricity, the track flourishes in the development of individual parts to reach an incredible dynamic peak before fading off into oblivion.
Though your average pop fan could probably count the number of French musical superstars in their CD collection on one hand, Mélanie’s gorgeous voice, combined with her unique storytelling ability, is sure to allow her to muscle in. Bye Bye Manchester will appeal to fans of rock, folk, indie, electro, new wave and everything in between.