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Album Of The Week

Beguile, Seduce, Transport: Eric Chenaux’s Slowly Paradise
Eden Tizard , March 8th, 2018 08:18

These extraordinary new experiments from Chenaux are equally comforting and strange.

Experimentation in music is often thought to be somehow the reserve of an elite, unattainable to those who haven't been schooled in the dense histories of the avant-garde. For Eric Chenaux, though, it’s what we’re all doing, all the time, every day. “We improvise and experiment with our thoughts and what could be called a life,” he told The Wire last November. "We improvise and experiment when we take a walk, when we cook, in conversation with friends, in how we listen to others, how we react or resist, how we love…"

You can hear in his music that Chenaux never gets bogged down with cliched ideas of what it means to be an experimental musician. The way he takes from the singer-songwriter tradition and from the avant-garde somehow enables him to avoid the pitfalls of both, leaving him free to sculpt his own deeply idiosyncratic vision for songwriting. As Trish Keenan of Broadcast once put it: “Avant-garde is no good without popular, and popular is rubbish without avant-garde.” This latest album, Slowly Paradise is Chenaux’s purest crystallisation of that approach yet, an open-hearted work both humble and ambitious.

‘Bird & Moon’ starts us off with an odd trumpeting guitar line, bizarrely reminiscent of Brian May's solo on ‘I Want to Break Free’ while still firmly in the realms of the free-improv sonic explorer. Once Chenaux's lilting vocals come in, the singularity of his craft becomes clear. Normally when such seemingly combative forms collide there is a sense of violent friction, but there is little hostility to be found here. It's a sound built from wholly disparate elements that feel, if not entirely natural, at least amiable in each other’s company.

Within the traditional singer-songwriter lineage, the guitar is primarily a subdued instrument, rarely diverting attention from the vocals. Chenaux’s playing is contrary to this. His guitar is often an obtuse presence, coming directly after the vocals and engaging them in a restless dialogue. The results are comparable sometimes to Bill Orcutt and Richard Dawson, and to Derek Bailey’s inflected shattering of form. Where Chenaux really differs from any of them is in his lysergic tonal explorations, behind his honey-dipped vocals and baffling assortment of bent guitar notes, aquatic and forever morphing. Take bluesy number ‘An Abandoned Rose’, where the lead guitar picking recalls the American primitivist style of Orcutt or John Fahey while its surrounding sonics are consumed by strange plasmic squelches. It’s beautiful.

Slowly Paradise is perhaps a distant cousin to Arthur Russell's World Of Echo, too; it shares that album’s combination of oceanic instrumental tones and unabashedly vulnerable vocals, it also has songs that seem to be private works made public. This lyrics on this album - co-written by Ryan Driver, who also contributes Hammond organ - are littered with compact intimate lines, such as: “Moonlight needs a little sky to make the warmest night” on ‘Bird And Moon’, commanding our complete immersion without any need for resolution.

This is a world away from the academia-drenched faction of the avant-garde. Slowly Paradise beguiles, seduces, transports the listener; Chenaux’s care and respect for us is clear. "I'm not interested in what musicians do, I'm interested in what listeners do,” he has said. “That's where the music happens. A musician in and of himself or herself isn't necessarily psychedelic. But the way a person listens can be incredibly psychedelic."

This is a remarkable record - it is wildly experimental and as comforting as a soft embrace. The most interesting art almost always has a sense of duality, and Slowly Paradise is no different; where it radically differs is in the lack of combat between those opposing forces. Chenaux’s love for Sade, for example, in no way contradicts or confuses his love for Derek Bailey. This all-encompassing spirit coalesces on closing track and highlight ‘Wild Moon’, where Chenaux's voice is at its most rapturous, over Driver's restrained but romantic Hammond organ lines, all interwoven with some of the most perplexing guitar workouts on the record. This album is truly his strongest yet, and this closing song is his zenith.

Eric Chenaux is touring the UK in April, details here