Yannick Ilunga, under the stagename Petite Noir, releases his first full-length album Le Vie Est Belle // Life Is Beautiful through Domino Records. Ilunga labels the music “Noirwave,” a subgenre derivative of the New Wave movement of the ’80s. The album offers Ilunga’s interesting interpretation and restructuring of electronic music and pushes the ears of its listeners to accept rhythmic and harmonic patterns seldom explored by the larger genre’s “popular” counterparts.
Le Vie Est Belle // Life Is Beautiful
Domino Records Inc.
The first track of the album, “Intro Noirwave,” does as it promises. It softly and surreptitiously introduces the album’s unique approaches and emphases. While easily glossed over as a soft start to the later, replay-friendlier tracks, there’s a lot more going on than one might think. “Intro Noirwave” is structured on two different sections, the differentiating characteristic of which being the two different polyrhythmic and strongly syncopated structures on which the relatively static harmonic padding is buttressed. From here things get slightly more involved. The song’s principal phrase length is 16 bars, and it is from these 16 bar cycles that the music derives all of its overarching pulses and transitions. The sections, call them A and B respectively, are introduced as 16-bar sections. Each section then further reworks the 16 bars. The A section is based on a repeating two-bar rhythmic phrase; the B section is based on a four-bar phrase, broken into repeating two-bar phrases. The harmonic padding in the B section changes in 8 bar phrases, while in the A section the harmonic rhythm is a little more obscured. It is also broken into eight-bar phrases, however there is motion in the second pulse of the first phrase then again on the downbeat of the second phrase.
This involved interpretation illustrates that hiding within the apparent simplicity of Petite Noir’s music is a nuanced complexity, a look at which helps to understand where the music is coming from — a place where rhythm and structure are monarchical over harmony and melody. These rhythmic processes are integral to Petite Noir’s sound and it’s their emphasis that allows Petite Noir to free himself from the strictures of more mainstream music — the trend for which has been an overwhelming reliance on harmony and melody for structure — only using rhythm for groove and feel.
With one notable exception — “Seventeen (Stay)” — the album struggles with its song’s endings, which are too similar between tracks and don’t feel very complimentary to each track’s groove; the songs feel like they end because they need to end, leaving an organic ending longed for. “Seventeen (Stay),” however, grows into itself rather nicely. It is always appreciated when an artist attempts a long-form composition. The song showcases Ilunga’s ability to work with and maintain a dynamic energy throughout a seven-minute track. Proving with this track the ability to allow a song to take its course, it is a shame that the other songs on the album are cut short. The album is a very successful miscegenation of electronic sounds, acoustic instruments and Ilunga’s distinct voice, whose peaty, girthsome timbre is smoky-sweet in the low registers and horn-like at the top of its range. “Best” and “Colour” are upbeat and danceable, while the title track and “Chess” are slower, sultry and seductive. “Le Vie Est Belle // Life Is Beautiful (feat. Baloji)” boasts one of the album’s highlights, when the hearty inertial drive of the track is minced and tossed up by a French verse from Baloji, a Congolese, Belgium-based rapper.
Le Vie Est Belle // Life is Beautiful also finds issues with its song placement. There is no real sense of narrative structure emerging from the track listing. There is nothing wrong or bad about any track placement, but I struggle to locate any intra-album dialectic between songs. Furthermore, the sandwiching of the penultimate song between “Chess” and “Down,” tracks released months prior to the album release, don’t serve the album well. Having listened to these two tracks many times outside of the context of this particular album – in the case of “Chess” within the context of a different album, The King of Anxiety EP – I was pulled out of the album’s vibe right at its end, an album’s most sensitive moment.
The tracks released on Le Vie Est Belle are good, and some have a secure spot on my playlists for the foreseeable future. Its utilization of rhythmic phrasing and reinterpretation of the electronic sound make it good, but its many shortcomings put it shy of being a great album. I do, however, suspect a positive trajectory for Petite Noir and look forward to his next full length release.