Most of the time, in order for foreign pop music to get any attention in America, it has to have an aura of the exotic about it. African or Asian or Latin pop is going to have an easier time making inroads with American listeners than European pop, which, I'm guessing, strikes people as an incomprehensible version of something familiar. This isn't meant to belittle the pleasure that artists as varied as King Sunny Ade or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or tango king Astor Piazzolla have given me. But the experience of browsing through the international section of the record store is both teasing and frustrating; I find myself wondering what terrific French or Italian or German or Swedish pop I'm flipping past.
That curiosity is what led me, last year, to pick up the French band Autour de Lucie's 1995 self-titled debut. The album turned out to be a pleasant surprise -- melodic, weightless pop that coasted along on chiming electric and gently strummed acoustic lines, and Valerie Leuillot's sweet, pleasant voice lying like foam on the top of the mix. The album sounded like everything the Cranberries should be, with none of that band's taste for pretension or sudden, jarring discordant sounds.
Autour de Lucie played some dates on last year's Lilith Fair, and their second album, 1997's "Immobile," has just been released on their American label, Nettwerk. Part of the album's pleasure is that it's so badly named. Autour de Lucie haven't just stood still and stuck with the sound of their debut. In all the ways in which I'm able to judge (I don't speak French; Leuillot could be singing stereo instructions for all I know), "Immobile" adds shading and texture to the band's sound without sacrificing melodicism. From track to track, "Immobile" is catchy as hell, but it's not digested after a few listens. There are all sorts of things you don't pick up at first, like the horns on "La 2hme chance" ("The 2nd Chance") because they've been woven so subtly into the mix.
It's not like every song on "Autour de Lucie" sounded exactly the same (the almost Arabic feel of "Le Tournesol" ("The Sunflower") is like nothing else the band has done). But the sound of "Immobile" is darker, denser and harder. Like any pop band trying to keep up, Autour de Lucie have paid attention to the influence electronica is having on pop and dance music. On many of the numbers on "Immobile," Leuillot's voice seems to be coming to us over a phone wire or out of a battered transistor radio. Fuzz and ambient noise, snatches of half-heard conversation hover around the background of the songs. One track, "Sagrada Familia," is what could be described as a sonic pun; named for Antonio Gaudi's great unfinished Barcelona cathedral (the finished plans were locked away in his head at the time of his death), this instrumental is built around a tinkling piano that, after a minute, grows discordant, slamming the track to an abrupt halt.
But it's the guitars that tell the story here. The ones that open the album on "Selon l'Humeur" ("Depending on the Mood") have the sound of thick metallic cords being snapped and suddenly pulled taut. The rubbery underwater sound of the guitars on "L'eau Qui Dort" ("Sleeping Water") wouldn't sound out of place on a Chris Isaak number. Guitarist Jean-Pierre Ensuque seems to be stretching his melodic lines out to see how far they can go. And often it's just the simplicity of Leuillot's acoustic strumming that sets the rhythm or the tone of the song. "Immobile" often plays like a series of little lessons in how to build, allay, suspend rhythm.
For such a listenable album, there's nothing sugary about "Immobile." At moments, as in "La Veriti (sur ceux qui mentent)" ("The Truth About the One Who Lies"), when guitars slash through the moody atmosphere, it's as if the band had figured a way to use grunge's slow/fast/slow rhythms for pop purposes. The album is the work of a pop band staking a claim in more difficult, idiosyncratic territory. Certain numbers, like the title cut, suggest the mood pieces of the Spinanes. Given the obliqueness of some of the best music of the last few years (like the Spinanes' "Strand"), the language barrier shouldn't be a barrier to Autour de Lucie at all. If you sink deep enough into the textures of these songs, it feels like an invitation to make your own meanings.