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Laetitia Sadier’s first true solo album, Silencio, is a sublime ripple of protest.
Laetitia Sadier’s first true solo album, Silencio, is a sublime ripple of protest.

DISC OF THE WEEK

Laetitia Sadier’s French evolution Add to ...

  • Title Silencio
  • Artist Laetitia Sadier
  • Label Drag City
  • Genre pop
  • Rating 3.5/4
  • Year 2012

A protest song can take many forms, but in presentation, it’s usually unkempt. It’s a coal miner singing Which Side Are You On, or Woody Guthrie hunched over a guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it in big letters. It’s the Clash or Crass howling against the foul dregs of empire, or Anti-Flag and Propagandhi assaulting global capitalism with a barrage of guitar sounds.

But who says a dissenting word must be loud, or raw, or portable enough in its style of delivery to be sung at a protest march?

Laetitia Sadier has a lot of beefs with the current world order, and when she sings and plays them on her new album, they sound like a million bucks.

There Is a Price to Pay For Freedom (And It Isn’t Security) is the most refined and beautiful piece of musical agitprop I’ve ever heard. It’s majestic and sad but also defiant, like a huge wall-of-sound mural that unites the current moment with betrayals on a mythic scale. The title is a slogan, but the dissonances that climb a crystal staircase to nowhere are pop-music poetry of a rare order.

In Rule of the Game, Sadier sings about the vices of the ruling class, in the clear-water soprano familiar from her years as lead singer with Stereolab. That voice seems so much about restrained luxury and detachment, it provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance with her socially engaged lyrics. But Sadier has always been that way, with Stereolab and with her earlier solo incarnation, Monade. Silencio merely sharpens the contrast, throws us back harder against our own expectations, and proves that smashing the state does not preclude a good party.

“Rating agencies, financial markets and the G20 were not elected by the people,” she sings in Ausculation to the Nation. “In the name of what are we letting them control our lives?” It’s a good question, delivered over a rhythm guitar that’s strummed almost as if it were an autoharp. Near the end, the voice drops out, the tempo picks up and the floor is cleared for dancing, while you wonder whether revolution can be this elegant and fun.

Musically, there are abundant traces of Stereolab’s influence – though not so much in Next Time You See Me, the one song by the band’s main writer, Tim Gane. The bubbling waves of synthesizer, the periodic Latin beats, the continual echoes of French 60s pop and the music’s lavish general insistence – all display the pedigree.

But there’s something else going on here, simpler and more magical.

In Silent Spot, Sadier’s wordless white tone, seething keyboard sounds and spaghetti-western guitar set up a delicate balance that seems to pivot on stillness, absence and silence. Merci de M’Avoir Donné la Vie has been boiled down to Satie-like essences, with transparent instrumentals, Sadier’s plain declamatory singing, and a one-tone tonic bass. And yet this minimal scenario supports some amazingly detailed chordal writing, and a feeling of dense irreducibility.

Her English lyrics are often difficult to pick out, even though she sings clearly. The French songs make it clear why: her default notion of musical prosody is French and smoothly syllabic, not English and unevenly stressed. Her singing is always partially sunk in the instrumental values of the sounds around her.

That’s not a problem – in fact, it has always been part of her appeal, and remains so now, on the latest of a strong series of solo albums.

Laetitia Sadier performs at the Drake Hotel in Toronto on Sept. 18, followed by a performance at Pop Montreal on Sept. 19.

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