A lot of adjectives come up over and over again in the reviewing game, but I rarely ever call something ‘charming’. There’s no insult to anyone in particular there, but I don’t often find music that exhibits the right balance of personality, character and unique stylistic choices to earn that particular adjective. Still, that’s exactly the word that comes to mind when I’m describing Les SalAmandas and There’s A Sea Between Us, the French-Irish duo’s debut album released this month.
Quite the backstory comes with this release, too. Young, aspiring songwriters Colyne Laverriere and Julie O’Sullivan met by chance, despite the divide of ocean and discovered their mutual interest in composing by yet another chance several years ago. The result is a litany of impressive names sharing a stage with the duo (including Wallis Bird, Mick Flannery, Ben Caplan and many more) something particularly impressive for a group without a millisecond of released music. That’s no longer the case though, as the twosome burst onto the scene with their characterful and cheery debut.
There’s some very distinct folk stylings as we enter track one, ‘Now Is The Time’, a jaunty tune with an easy-to-sing-along repeating melody. The two vocalists typically sing in a unison-style that gives an interesting doubling-up effect, adding a little bit of punch when their voices diverge into harmonies. What really grabs you about ‘Now Is The Time’ is just how developed and intelligent the musical arrangement is – a simple strummed guitar gives rise to gorgeous, powerful string arrangements with subtle, warbling synth organ sitting underneath. The contrast between the simple melodies and harmonies gives some unique character to each song’s aesthetic.
Again, the split between vocal simplicity and instrumental complexity in ‘My Head’, simplistic acoustic guitar picking bolstered by some lonely lap guitar notes. Once we get to the chorus though, outta nowhere comes some really subtle brass arrangement and a drum pattern sitting back far enough to keep the energy going, without stealing the spotlight. It feels like it’s going country at the start! But then it doesn’t! What it goes into feels more like the cafe-indie style of, say, Pomplamoose or even Feist at some later points in the album.
Trying to attach a specific genre feels reductive, like picking out the individual fruit in a fruit salad. ‘Mother’ feels like it’s doing a very similar thing – extremely simple unison vocal melody, complex lap guitar pedaled by chordal piano. The impactful introduction of vocal harmonies are used with a bit more effect here, and the brass/lap guitar solo could be the standout of the entire album.
There’s so many points in the album where I feel like I can pick out a specific influence – ‘Now Is The Time’ has such a strong singalong folk, Hudson Taylor vibe, ‘Mouldy’ feels like it’s echoing the jangly, lofi indie-pop of Camera Obscura, ‘There’s A Sea Between Us’ has the anthemic feel of a Mic Christopher song, ‘Gold (Fall With The Gun)’ could be the acclaimed child of The Heathers and Wyvern Lingo – there’s so many different styles at play here. Whether those influences were in anyone’s mind is probably something the band will laugh at me for if they read this.
While there’s a lot to love, points on the album can grate somewhat. While the unison voice is interesting, there’s a lack of dynamism in songs like ‘Gold (Fall With The Gun)’ or ‘My Head’ where some change in vocal tone or some injection of vocal energy would make a world of difference. It seems to me like this may be a symptom of the very careful, measured way that lets the unison vocals work. While this is interesting for a song or two, hearing the same tone of voice through several tracks begins to weigh heavy on the ear somewhat.
The incredible instrumentation draws attention somewhat to a less polished approach where lyricism and melody is concerned. I would have loved to have heard more complex melodies taking place, more intricate rhyming schemes. Every line rhymes in a somewhat lullaby style that’s hard to listen to for a full album, and often it feels like a word is jammed in place where a word with a syllable less would have done the job, particularly on tracks like ‘Plastic Barbies’ or ‘The Last Chance’.
That being said and it bears repeating, there is a lot to love here. It’s not often so much personality and quirk makes its way into an album like it does here and there’s so much for the duo to be very proud of. There’s A Sea Between Us feels like just the beginning for two young, confident songwriters.