Album review: St. Germain returns with new sound

HANNAH HO ’19
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
French DJ Ludovic Navarre, better known by his moniker St. Germain, just broke a fifteen-year silence with a self titled album. Millennials may recall the jazz-influenced electronic album “Tourist,” headlined by hit single “Rose Rouge.” Defined by catchy house beats and a seductive smoothness, “Tourist”’s tracks remained staples in clubs, restaurants, and house parties across Europe. Navarre’s huge success – topping billboards and winning the Victoires de la Musique, France’s equivalent of the Grammys – led to extensive touring worldwide and increasing popularity in the United States. St. Germain was, at the time, an innovative name in the electronic scene; Navarre’s work opened many new doors and gave rise to the exploration of further genre-crossovers such as electroswing. Mixing rich vocals from the likes of Marlena Shaw and live instrumentals including trumpet, saxophone, and flute, the components of classic jazz paired effortlessly with head-bobbing percussive loops.
Having achieved international acclaim, one might wonder why he so suddenly vanished. According to a recent interview from Music Times, Navarre was at a creative dead end – any attempt to piece together new material merely sounded like a continuation of “Tourist.” “I didn’t want to repeat myself,” he wrote. “The compositions were similar, the musicians were the same, so I decided that I really wanted to depart in a different direction.” His extended hiatus from touring and recording ended in 2006, when he traveled to West Africa to delve into the colorful history of Malian music. Over a period of six years, Navarre collaborated with drummers, vocalists, and guitarists in Mali, as well as musicians from the Malian community in Paris.
The result of those six years of full-time work is an aural masterpiece of storytelling. “St. Germain” consists of eight distinct yet cohesive tracks. Each song is a microcosm, with its own unique qualities, yet still reflecting the mood of the album in its entirety. Starting simply, Navarre delicately builds in his signature loops, growing gradually toward a multi-dimensional, captivating finish. The album features complex rhythmic textures; layers of patterned synths provide a background for riffs on the balafon and kora, traditional Malian wooden instruments.
One of the most enjoyable traits of “St. Germain” is its subtlety. The African flair, accentuated by warbling, passionate guitar improvisations, weaves in and out of the ambient atmosphere. No individual element ever becomes overwhelming – Navarre organically finds balance, avoiding heaviness or monotony that occasionally characterizes loops while also avoiding a cluttered, busy soundscape. This understated clarity allows recognition and appreciation of little intriguing moments; with every subsequent repetition, new details reveal themselves and enhance the whole listening experience.
The opening song, “Real Blues,” instantly engages with its vibrant framework of shakers, plucked strings, and raw vocalizations that fade in and out of focus. Lyrics are not necessary in expressing an emotional narrative, and in keeping with Malian style, the striking utterances flow very naturally throughout following tracks. “Voilà” showcases stunning vocal and guitar solos that soar against a steady backdrop of percussion. Alternating and often intertwining, the two melodies circle around each other and combine to create vivid tonal intricacies. “Hanky-Panky” and “Family Tree” return to jazz with ride cymbals, a fluttering alto sax, and piano interludes.
“St. Germain” is not an album for EDM enthusiasts in search of cheap thrills. Nor is it a thorough explication of West Africa’s ethnomusicology. Instead, it retains the sophistication of Navarre’s previous work and incorporates a kaleidoscopic range of new sounds, inviting audiences to listen again and again.

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