There are only so many tablespoons of sugar you can put into your tea or coffee before it’s just sugar, with a spot or hint of the caffeine that’s supposed to drive it through your nervous system. That seems to be the main problem with Grande Est La Maison, the newest LP from Brussels-based composer Thomas Jean Henri, a.k.a. Cabane. The framework – the skeleton, if you will – for much of the record is a carefully finger-picked or strummed acoustic guitar, with the capo placed high up the bridge, lending the proceedings a glistering quality. At times, it sounds almost like a ukulele with perky, bright nylon strings.
But Henri piles on the adornments, from swelling strings to synth touches to the sing-song vocals of contributors Will Oldham (he of Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Kate Stables (she of This Is the Kit). Here and there, there’s a touch of misguided electronic glitch. Even when – and this is rare – Henri allows a moment to go a little bare, it still tastes of molasses. The result is a record that aims to pep you up or seduce you but, too often, makes you pucker your lips in distaste.
Now, those are bold pronouncements – and there are redeeming qualities to the record. The nursery-rhyme rhythms of “Sangokaku”, the LP’s best track, meld Oldham’s rusted timbre to great effect with the syrupy sweet backing-vocal mélange of Stables and the five-person vocal group Bost Gehio. Henri is wise to utilize more than a shade of restraint here and, when strings do enter around the 1:30 mark, they are lower in the mix than they are elsewhere on the record. The guitar on this track is also the most beatific thing on the whole LP, with the high treble notes ringing pristine and true. You’ll wish the song went on longer than four minutes and change.
Elsewhere, it’s hard to be as kind to Henri. On “Easily, We’ll See”, he tries to wax Gainsbourg but the track, with misfired lyrics and so-so vocals. “How can you give so much love / And suddenly make me pay,” Stables appears to sing, is not sensual enough to be Parisian. On “Tu ne Joueras Plus a L’amour”, Oldham just kind of wanders, giving it his best go but lacking the kind of structure or the firmament to sell a piece on romantic rumination. “By the Sea” is lost in a puddle of over-adornment.
There are genuine moments of beauty. About a minute into “Take Me Home”, Oldham hints at a kind of fluttering falsetto as an angelic choir backs him. It works because of its religious implications, the singers a stand-in for pew-packing churchgoers, and Oldham (himself no stranger to revelation) a beam of light in the pulpit. But Henri follows the moment with the same acoustic guitar decorations, and by the time Stables enters (too low in the mix), the choir feels almost garish, superfluous. Henri revisits the theme on a reprise later with Oldham as lead vocalist, and the guitar recorded amidst more diegetic sound. Better the second time around but still not very good. The record ends with “Until the Summer Comes”, Stables singing in an effort-driven falsetto over swoons and swirls of strings that do nothing to bolster her presence.
There’s an interesting conceit here, with dueling male and female leads cooing about all sorts of love over sensual strings and Django Reinhardt-esque guitar. But Henri fails in the initiation department and someone like Oldham, who has a studied drama in his vocal presence, is totally not used to his potential. Yeah, there are some pretty, flowery little digressions and devotees of French pop surely will find a few measures here and there over which they, too, can swoon. But, all in all, this sadly misses the mark. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, March 13, 2020