Elise Mélinand: Gray Hoodie

Vittoria Fleet: Acht LP

Spring 2014 sees debut albums by Vittoria Fleet and French composer Elise Mélinand appearing on n5MD. That's not all they have in common, however: though firmly rooted in the electronica tradition, they're strongly vocal-oriented collections and song-based, too. But just as there are similarities, there are differences, with Mélinand a French solo artist and Vittoria Fleet a Berlin-based outfit founded in 2009 by Allan Shotter and Giada Zerbo. Perhaps most importantly, one of the releases proves to be a more completely satisfying listen than the other.

Preceded by the 2011 self-released EP Kissing Cousins, the two-years-in-the-making Acht represents the latest stage in Vittoria Fleet's development. The album's forty-six minutes reveal a project that's achieved an impressive degree of maturity in a short time, with the duo striking a pleasing balance between instrumental and vocal elements. IDM, shoegaze, experimental electronica, and trip-hop would appear to be reference points for Vittoria Fleet, its atmospheric sound largely characterized by refined sound design, robust beatwork, and Zerbo's attractive vocalizing. On eleven songs, she shows herself to be an expressive yet controlled singer with a smooth and delicate delivery that exudes personality, if not to as extreme a degree as a Bjork or Beth Gibbons. In fact, Zerbo calls to mind both at various times on the album (Gibbons, for example, during the trip-hop-styled “We'll Wait” and Bjork in “David”), as well as Cocteau Twins' Liz Frazer (during “It Begins”).

Though the clarity of her singing is effectively showcased throughout, “Could Be Something” offers an especially good example of her vocal skills, and complementing the voice is an instrumental backdrop heavy on synthesizers and drums that's complex but not at the expense of musicality. “Hunger” likewise exemplifies a sophistication in its construction, with the song's dynamic instrumental attack an excellent complement to Zerbo's singing. At times, the duo likes to play the one off against the other, as when “In Winter,” for example, places vocal melodies delivered at a relaxed tempo against a faster, agitated backdrop. “Sávuca Redux” also shows that, when it wishes to do so, Vittoria Fleet is more than up to the challenge of creating a stirring instrumental setting. Kudos to Shotter and Zerbo, then: Acht proves to be a solid collection from start to finish, one admirably free of weak tracks and lapses in judgment.

Gray Hoodie similarly argues strongly on Elise Mélinand's behalf in many respects. Certainly “Indonesia Baby” starts the thirty-two-minute set promisingly with a haunting miniature that features Mélinand's wordless vocalizing as an atmospheric detail, and the subsequent track, “Prélude en Louise,” also works well for the reason that it largely subsumes her voice within an aggressive instrumental presentation. Without a doubt, entrancing set-pieces such as “Rue des Abbesses” and “Eliot” provide substantial proof of her superior gifts as a songwriter, arranger, and instrumentalist. But the lovely orchestral-enhanced sound design presented in “Eliot” is undermined by the child-like chirp of her vocal, and that's unfortunately something that happens whenever her singing assumes a lead role within a song.

Instrumentally, the album, which was initially inspired by techniques she was exposed to during a playing stint in Christina Vantzou's Little Prism Ensemble and which was recorded mostly at Mélinand's parents' house in France, is striking: liberally sprinkling the material with music boxes, electronics, strings, piano, and percussion, Mélinand creates ten vibrant vignettes packed with detail. “Sur l'océan,” for instance, is rendered memorable by the presence of strings and Franck Zaragoza's classical piano accompaniment as well various seaside sounds; it's also, however, weakened by the overly childlike character of Mélinand's voice. A welcome contrast in that department arrives in the form of Augustin Jacob's gravel-voiced spoken word contribution to “Dried Leaves,” but it's an atmospheric effect negated by the chipmunk-like gurgle Mélinand contributes to the song's second half. Though her album succeeds on multiple counts, it's less successful in terms of one, and unfortunately that one is a pretty central part of the mix. If Mélinand could find a way to temper the child-like effect of the vocalizing on her future recordings, there's a better chance her music will satisfy on vocal and instrumental grounds.

May 2014