Despite currently touring Europe with Katy Perry, French group Yelle seems to have far more in common with the opening act of Perry’s next tour leg, Robyn. In some sense, all three are involved in the process of breaking down and reinterpreting standard pop tropes. Perry does it with a sledgehammer, a purposely old-fashioned style that blends half-ironic cheesecake imagery with polished nostalgia. Robyn’s songs are remote and frosty, plainly exhibiting their intelligence while remaining insistently catchy. Yelle’s often skeletal repurposing of dance themes definitely skews toward the latter, maintaining distance through the use of repetition and stubbornly French lyrics.
Despite the sense of a female performer backed by a group of anonymous producers, Yelle is actually a band, a partnership between singer Yelle (Julie Budet), drummer GrandMarnier (Jean François Perrier), and keyboardist Tepr (Tanguy Destable). Safari Disco Club is a definite breakthrough for the group, who started off reasonably well with 2007’s Pop Up. From the opening title track, which supplements its brittle dance beat with a quiet but insistent drum charge, the album remains distinctly concerned with balancing vocal and musical elements, a fact that keeps it lively, but at times contributes to an overshadowing of its singer.
The backing of “Comme un Enfant” twists and kicks under Yelle’s small voice, seemingly threatening to burst into an instrumental at any time. It’s endemic of an album where, despite an at times minimal atmosphere, the singer’s vocals are only one of a myriad of things going on, minimalist dance beats fused with dynamic synths and continuous distorting devices, which keep the songs feeling traditional yet fresh. The live drums add a consistently organic element, at times suggesting classic disco, but they’re also generally pushed down in the mix, adding to the conception of Yelle as a lone vocalist in a sea of production, rather than a female-fronted band.
Yet due to the combination of the singer’s delicate voice and the insistent distance these songs puts across, itself partially a consequence of the language barrier, Budet never seems to develop a definite personality. She’s a willing cipher on most of these songs, her voice even and clearly modulated, never straining or challenging, melting to another element under passages like the extended instrumental build-up of “Mon Pays.” This makes for an extensive, interesting album, a result of a seemingly even partnership with her two producer bandmates, but also a lack of distinct leadership.