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Benjamin Biolay: Palermo Hollywood

Album Notes

There is no question that Benjamin Biolay is heir to Serge Gainsbourg's nouvelle chanson throne. Five of his previous six albums have re-created it in his own image, using everything from canny angular pop, punk, and skittering Euro funk to electro, Saravah soul, cafe jazz, and ye-ye while remaining devoted to the sophisticated gospel of Gainsbourg. Palermo Hollywood is a trademark Biolay album, chock-full of his irony, wicked wit, offbeat sensuality, and irresistible, catchy melodies and arrangements. But it is also something other. Most of it was cut in the Buenos Aires district the album was titled after, a haunt for many ex-pat Europeans amid glorious old world architecture and subterranean street life. Biolay has a small apartment there. Using Argentine musicians as well as his usual stable in France, he delivers many of these songs with a new array of rhythms that include cumbia and tango. He co-wrote several songs with Uruguayan/Argentinian actress/vocalist Sofia Wilhelmi. She duets on the single "Palermo Queens" and on the accordion-fueled cumbia-cum-tarantella-cum-rock tune "Palermo Soho." On the former, his protagonist is a romantically rejected flaneur who drinks and smokes too much in an effort to hide his heartbreak. In the latter, he is drunk too, but he takes in the decadent street scene and celebrates it matter of factly. Passion and pleasure may seem journalistic here, but they are overflowing; an excess of desire is all in the lyric puns. "La Noche Ya No Existe" is an electro-dancehall cumbia with mariachi horns performed in duet with Alika, the Uruguayan reggae star. It juxtaposes romance under a big sky in a world destroyed by multinational corporations. "Tendresse Année Zéro" is a gorgeous spoken word poem about loving and losing, with drum loops, strings, hand percussion, and analog synths creating a sonic panorama for pre-dawn romantic anguish. The brief "Borges Futbol Club" is a hazy, jazz waltz with lush strings, whistling, and a killer bassline, offset by the sampled sound of a soccer announcer raving about a goal. "Pas Sommeil" is a long, groovy, modern chanson that serves as an anthem for Biolay's eternal ne'er do well who calmly -- and unrepentantly -- narrates his many losses in life. The music fuses luxuriant cinematic strings to a spaghetti western melodic theme infused with a Bach organ fugue and squalling electric rock guitars and drums. Already heady with tones and textures, Jorge Luis Borges is sampled reading one of his poems. "Pas Di'ci" combines new wave and stadium rock tropes in a grand chanson frame. Palermo Hollywood is an expansion of Biolay's musical palette. Like Gainsbourg, he relentlessly explores new sounds in which to frame his lyrics and melodies. His consummate skill in assembling the familiar with the exotic goes beyond anything he's done before. He poetically renders his non-committal, willing societal rejects and anti-heros as three-dimensional characters who speak effortlessly, as the listener hums along, often nodding in assent. ~ Thom Jurek


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