French melodies win over U.S. fans

Keren Ann collaborator Biolay and supermodel-singer Bruni join the new French invasion.
Keren Ann is leading a bit of a French invasion. Her new album will be followed with releases from two Nettwerk artists licensed through EMI France: Clement's "Bye Bye Beaute" and "A l'Origine" by Clement's brother, Biolay, a critics' darling who's been widely hailed as the vanguard of a new movement in France.
Fun, frothy guitar pop topped with whispery, girlie-girl vocals, "Bye Bye Beaute" is the second Clement record to be released in France and in the United States. "A l'Origine" is Biolay's third solo album, but it's his first to make its way to the United States without an import label.
Complex influences
Of the two, Biolay is a greater talent, but he may prove less accessible to American audiences. His vocals are rich, his production dense, his lyrics grounded in emotional truth. Musically, he is Gainsbourg, Phil Spector and John Lennon rolled into one -- visionary, if busy and referentially complex. The opening track of "A l'Origine," for example, ends with a swirling, Beatles-esque "A Day in the Life" disintegration. It isn't the most welcoming opener to the intricately orchestrated rock that rounds out the record, but it is indicative of his strongest influence -- '60s English pop.
Biolay, 32, first came on the scene 12 years ago with a solo EP, which was released by EMI France. But listening to it afterward, "I really thought I was singing [very badly]," Biolay said by phone from Paris. So he stopped for several years. To fulfill his contractual obligation to EMI, he turned his attention to writing and producing records for other French artists, including the pop group Autour de Lucie, his sister and aging crooner Henri Salvador.
It was for Salvador's hit 2000 album "Jardin d'Hiver" that Biolay also began collaborating with Keren Ann. After co-writing the Salvador record, the two worked together on Keren Ann's solo releases.
Recorded in French and released only in Europe, those early albums were both co-written and produced by Biolay. Her 2004 album, "Not Going Anywhere," also featured Biolay's writing and production, but his role had been cut to about half, with Keren Ann writing and producing the remainder.
Biolay and Keren Ann worked together only from 2000 to 2002, during which time they were briefly romantically involved, but those two years were incredibly prolific. Some of the songs they wrote are still being recorded and released by other French singers.
French beauty
In France, their names are almost invariably linked. They are also well known, but their fame pales in comparison with supermodel-turned-singer Bruni, who scored a massive hit two years ago with her debut record, "Quelqu'un M'a Dit." It has sold 1.5 million copies in France alone.
The record wasn't released in the United States until last November, and then only through Barnes & amp; Noble -- a marketing idea conceived to compensate for Bruni's inability to tour the United States or accommodate much American press. Barnes & amp; Noble's exclusive right to the domestic release ends March 22, when the record will roll out to other retailers nationally.
It's testimony to the record's strength that Bruni has sold 50,000 copies in the United States, almost exclusively the result of in-store play at the national bookstore chain and word of mouth. Sung in French, the record is as easy on the ears as its singer is on the eyes. Listening to it, you can almost see Bruni running in slow motion through the French countryside.
Built around a pair of guitars -- one strummy, the other a slide -- the arrangements are simple. While Bruni's vocals tend to crack or blank out when she travels toward the upper register, there's a tenderness there, almost as if she were singing to a child or lover.
What she and today's other Parisian chanteuses are singing about, only French speakers know, but it doesn't seem to matter.
"As much as we seem to be down on France these days, American audiences really like their French female singers. The language is obviously a very pretty language," said V2 Records' Dan Cohen. "It's one of those things with world music albums. If they're melodic, people react to it. They don't necessarily care what the lyrics are."