Over the summer, I drove to Portland with a friend to see a band I’d only heard of in passing. Going into the concert, I was ignorant of almost everything. I’d only listened to the headlining band once or twice, and I had no clue who the opening act were. When their guitarist carried a saxophone with him onto the stage, I felt a pang of fear, because saxophones are rarely used well in contemporary music that isn’t overly fringe or experimental in the sense that it emphasizes the relative shock value of featuring an instrument like the saxophone over actually incorporating the instrument in a thoughtful or effective manner.
Boy did they prove me wrong.
French Vanilla starts off with “Honesty,” a track that is representative of the off-kilter quality the rest of the record embraces. For example, the bass and guitar sort of trade roles on this track. The bass riff is more varied and in-your-face than the guitar, which is less distinct from the rhythm section. The vocals, which would be more aptly described as being howled rather than sung, are immediately jarring. They seem to be art-house in the sense that certain refrains follow melodic paths, but others seem to climb up into the air without direction, grounded by the comparatively consistent instrumental components of the track.
This is mostly the case throughout the record, and it’s noteworthy that French Vanilla pulls nine songs out of their hat without losing steam. Some are better than others, but for the most part there’s a continuity of sound on the record that can be attributed to the fact that, even though their set-up is unconventional, the band sticks to it throughout.
“Evolution (of a Friendship)” is a great example of this. The guitar is replaced by a saxophone, which seems tame and complementary at first, but as the track progresses, it starts to compete with both the vocals and bass for centre stage. The magic here is in the fact that no one element ever really overtakes the others on the track. Sure, the chorus is squawky from the end of the sax and the vocals, but they both dance around each other, weaving two distinct melodies, which somehow complement each other without ever becoming similar.
There are tracks on the record that are more cacophonous than others. The most cacophonous of which is probably “Anti-Aging Global Warming” which, were it not for the bass somehow managing to cut through the screeching guitar and belligerent vocals, depicting a post-apocalyptic scene, would fall apart well before its three-minute runtime. And, once we clue in to the lyrics (“pretty soon: sitting at a big round table. Having a laugh, eating your own pet animals”), the track’s absurdity shines through its business.
There’s a playfulness in French Vanilla which manages to come through, but it’s often a little dark. Like part of the first chorus on “Carrie” which, with a cheerful melody, exclaims: “Carrie got her period in the shower! Carrie got her period and everyone laughed at her!” And, despite the fact that the track essentially retells Stephen King’s “Carrie,” it’s the one track I would peg as a radio-ready single, if I thought any of the music on French Vanilla’s debut might have any chance of landing on the air. For what it’s worth, that’s a dig at the current state of non-independent radio, not at French Vanilla.
French Vanilla’s debut is weird, and full of wavering vocals and rad saxophone and bass trade-offs and, by golly, you should listen to it.