Monday, March 11, 2013

Album Review: Les Sages - Blood Harmony

Album Rating: B
Something about Blood Harmony, indie-rock family band Les Sages’ new release, is a bit different. These are the same songs we got off of its LP Share This, but the instrumentation has been stripped-back, the vocals amplified, and the production polished, going for a smoother aesthetic compared to the rougher sound of the LP. It’s ample proof of the band’s talent that it can radically redefine its own pool of work as it does here, and though its latest isn’t quite fully fleshed-out, it’s the rare cover EP that manages to stand as a worthwhile work in its own right.

The instrumentation here has undergone a total overhaul, the fairly straightforward pop-rock ensemble seen on Share This replaced with a litany of soft-spoken percussion instruments, a celesta, a piano, and an acoustic guitar. The resulting shift is one of both texture and dynamic—a feeling of isolation seeps through everything, softening the intensity of the source material but also infusing it with a touch of sorrow. This approach works surprisingly well at times (perhaps because Share This, underneath its sheen, was already quite a sad album), but sometimes the songwriting don’t quite dovetail with the reimagined atmosphere. For instance, “Chauffeur De Corbillard” loses the absolutely draining guitar climax serving as the original’s emotional core but doesn’t switch up the arrangement at all. As a result, it ends up crawling forward instead of doing its own thing, never quite reaching the soaring heights it’s aiming for. “Cicatrice Du Soldat” suffers from a similar issue once it reaches the bridge, where the original built in intensity: with some rearrangement of the dynamics, it could have been a powerful reinterpretation of the original, but it’s impossible to replicate the original’s climax with the instrumentation found on Blood Harmony, and the resulting ending feels underwhelming. 

It’s no coincidence that the only new track on Blood Harmony is also the strongest: the folksy Western epic “Mexique” isn’t burdened with any source material to live up to, so it builds a world of its own, laying a hushed foundation that’s almost tribal on which the vocals can come together in all sorts of interesting ways—the band’s tapped into religious material before, and it’s fitting that the arrangement takes on a bit of a choral bent as the Larsons convey what’s essentially a spiritual battle, the choice between staying in a hellbound society and rejecting it to find a better ideal—which, as the narrator finds out, is something he could have done all along without having left everything behind. Those disappointed in the covers here can still find some satisfaction in knowing that Les Sages can still execute lofty ideas with flair and intelligence.

With the caveats regarding the instrumentation and rearrangements set aside, it’s worth mentioning that Blood Harmony still lives up to its name: there are harmonies galore here, and they’re bloody good. The Larson clan is known for having a collaborative approach to vocals, and its latest work is jam-packed with character, interaction, and emotion as a result. “Nomades” succeeds because it trusts in the interplay between the male and female characters to carry the song’s emotional weight: the songwriting’s fantastic too, adjusting the original rhythms ever-so-slightly in order to better accentuate the motifs of connection and intimacy. “Deception” utilizes negative space in a haunting way, letting the vocals take on a slower, more understated pace—this choice proves fruitful as it delineates the speed-up nearing the end. Occasionally, the many tangents feel shoehorned in, like the addition of choral vocals on “Cicatrice Du Soldat” (which hammer in the anguish of the lyrics a bit too earnestly), but for the most part, the Larsons show a precision in their arrangements any family would be impressed by. 

It’s on the last track, “Amis,” where Blood Harmony reveals its true colors—and truly makes a case for itself. Consider, first of all, its placement: on Share This, “Deception” (known as “Tricks” on that album) was the final track, while “Amis” directly follows it here—in a way, it’s the flipside of that track’s pessimistic bent, turning feelings of betrayal into an active call to be better people (or should I say better “Friends.”) Its virtues and flaws are more-or-less lined up with the virtues and flaws of the album as a whole: without sheer sonic power to fall back on, some of Les Sages’ more mawkish attributes begin to reveal themselves, but the band believes in them so genuinely that its unflappable optimism takes on the sheen of something grand all the same.

1. Mexique
2. La Lutte des Classes
3. Chauffeur de Corbillard
4. Nomades
5. Cicatrice du Soldat
6. Deception
7. Amis


  1. spot on! great review; well balanced, exhaustive and well written - bravo!