This French-born, NY-based singer-songwriter's second album was the single best surprise of my year. It came in a see-through plastic sleeve, the track titles inked onto two sticky labels in block letters. On the outside, it reeked of the kind of delusional amateurism that all Splendid writers learn to recognize in their first month on the job. But, to quote Bo Diddley (among others), "You can't judge a book by its cover." This is a haunting, wonderful disc by a guy who writes, sings and plays better than lots of the slick-packaged acts that occasionally make it our way. As a bonus surprise, he brings a real, functioning band and thick non-bedroomy sound to all but two of the tracks.
Remy De Laroque has an easy, unforced, slightly rough-edged voice that recalls Ray Davies on some tracks ("Tell the World"), Peter Gabriel on others ("Au Seuil du Monde"). His songs float on a light bed of hooks that seem unsubstantial, but quickly stick in your head. The title track, for instance, has the breezy lilt of a Brazilian pop song, effortlessly burying its subtle melody in your subconscious. "Can't Shut Down" starts with a heavier, brooding verse, then slants upward toward the sunshine in its chorus.
De Laroque was born in Paris, but writes in English, occasionally translating his songs back into French. "Au Seuil du Monde", the lone Francophone tune, is dark and mysterious until it erupts into pop happy do-do-dos.
The disc's highlight is a bare ache of a track, the voice-and-guitar-only beauty of "How Will I Sow". Sung to a daughter, its halting notes and carefully picked strings capture the sadness of broken families, the pain of explaining why daddy doesn't live at home anymore. Here, and in the closing track, "Breathing", De Laroque inhabits the same emotive space as Jeff Buckley, wringing meaning out of tone and silence.
This is beautiful stuff, hidden in a plain white wrapper. An email revealed that De Laroque is working on more professional packaging, and I hope it will be available before my deadline. In the meantime, don't let the outside fool you.