South African Alt-R&B
Petite Noir, the brainchild of singer/musician Yannick Ilung, is a tough project to categorize. While his sound is essentially an update on the increasingly out-of-vogue chillwave movement, enough of his South African roots and influences emerge in the recordings that it avoids being derivative. The King of Anxiety EP, Ilung’s first release for Domino Records, was a very impressive debut that captured the attention and praise of prominent tastemakers. While filling a five-song EP with an appealingly unique blend of authentic 80’s-style new wave, modern alt-R&B, and a variety of African influences (some timeless, some regional fads) is a nice achievement, today’s most revered musicians hang their hats on the ability to craft memorable, urgent and cohesive full-length records. For the most part, Ilung succeeds on his debut.
Petite Noir’s amalgam of musical influences has been cleverly self-promoted as “noirwave”; a bit of shameless marketing that artists with hybrid sounds can’t help but dabble in. To be fair, the label Ilung gives his project is fitting. The songs on La Vie Este Belle / Life is Beautiful never reach anything close to hopeful or uplifting, instead opting for the dark underbelly of 80’s-era pop music, utilizing distant-sounding synthesizers, melancholy guitar riffing and sonorously emotive vocals. “Seventeen (Stay)” is the most successful instance of this approach, and it would make a solid second single behind the lead-off, “Best.”
“Best” is a bit of a peculiar choice as a first single. A song that grows on the listener with repeat listens, it begins as a subdued exercise in guitar and keyboard synchronization and George Lewis Jr.-like vocals. It then abruptly transitions into a horn-addled chorus that features Ilung repeatedly shouting “I don’t know what you will do / So please just go back home” over a rich horn accompaniment. The song is certainly one of the most well-written, most emotionally-urgent tracks on La Vie Este Belle / Life is Beautiful, but it feels like a tough song for the rapid-fire-tastes of modern music listeners to quickly accept.
One surprising complaint to be found with La Vie Este Belle / Life is Beautiful is the tendency for the lyrics to circle around trite clichés. One line – “She said be the change you want to see” – on the mid-album track “Breathe”, ranks among the most egregious examples. The song is mostly redeemed with its The Edge influenced guitar riffing and falsetto chorus, making up for slightly-cringe-worthy lyricism. Up next, the title track “La Vie Este Belle / Life is Beautiful” has a softly lilting guitar-riff beat during the intro riff before taking a very hip-hop influenced turn, with prominently featured, multi-lingual rapping.
The final track on La Vie Este Belle / Life is Beautiful is an interesting addition – “Chess” is the only track from the King of Anxiety EP to make it onto the full length. A very strong song, it appears completely unchanged on the LP. Placing one of the catchiest songs at the very end of an album makes it feel a bit tacked-on, a bit like those silly “secret tracks” from the compact disc era. There is nothing wrong with throwing in an older single to bolster your debut full-length, but in some ways it diminishes from what felt like the fitting-for-a-conclusion audio samples of “Inside.”