Alan Braxe / DJ Falcon - Step by Step EP Music Album Reviews

Alan Braxe / DJ Falcon - Step by Step EP Music Album Reviews
Featuring a standout vocal performance from Panda Bear, the French house veterans’ new EP could almost be mistaken for a lost classic of the Y2K era.

In a quarter century of four-to-the-floor beats and spine-tingling filter sweeps, Alan Braxe and DJ Falcon never collaborated until now—but for fans of the silky style popularized by Daft Punk, their union represents the second coming of the French touch. Both men’s trajectories trace back to Roulé, the label that Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter ran between 1995 and 2003. Roulé released only a dozen records in those eight years, but it cast a long shadow: Together with his partner Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s Crydamoure imprint, Bangalter’s label masterminded the playful sample flips, driving drum machines, and insouciant squelch that came to define late-’90s French house.

As two of the few members of the Roulé roster not named Bangalter, Braxe (aka Alain Quême) and Falcon (aka Stéphane Quême, Braxe’s cousin) are central to the story of the French touch. Braxe had a hand in the 1998 Stardust one-off “Music Sounds Better With You,” a single that is to French house as the croissant is to French pastry; Falcon partnered with Bangalter on a pair of singles that stretched the crew’s template to especially ecstatic proportions. Falcon subsequently dropped out of view; Braxe continued to refine his sumptuous sound across numerous productions and remixes, including a celebrated stint alongside fellow Frenchman Fred Falke in the early ’00s. Braxe + Falcon’s new Step by Step EP sounds more meticulously crafted than any of the early Roulé 12"s, which were banged out on rudimentary samplers, but—improved fidelity aside—the record shares the same spirit of simplicity; it could almost be mistaken for a lost classic of the Y2K era. Now that Daft Punk have hung up their helmets, it’s a welcome return to the golden age of French house.

Roulé’s signature was always exceptionally tactile: The label’s dogged loops, disco vamps, and overstuffed chords suggested a surfeit of emotion that the era’s electronic tools could barely contain. The EP’s clubbiest tracks revive that full-to-bursting energy with chord changes that just keep spiraling giddily upward. On “Love Me,” a rock-steady house beat fleshed out with laser zaps and boomy drum fills lays the foundation for a slow-motion whirlwind of a chord progression, synths and pianos cycling in such a way that they seem always on the verge of arriving at a climax. The keys have a naggingly familiar quality that makes you wonder where you’ve heard them before—the turnaround in a Billy Joel song? The bridge of some Joe Jackson B-side? The slower, swervier “Creative Source” manages a similar trick with a chunky loop of lush, orchestral disco sampled from ’70s R&B group Creative Source’s “I’d Find You Anywhere”; listen closely around the song’s 31-second mark, and you’ll hear the snippet that Braxe + Falcon flip into their warbly hook, sped up until it sounds like a Jackson Five song you can’t quite place. Both songs capture the kind of winking déjà vu that French house has always excelled at—a guileless, open-armed embrace of pure pleasure.

In the post-Roulé era, Braxe has become known for particularly starry-eyed takes on ’80s pop—like the Fred Falke collaboration “Rubicon,” a serotonin-fueled descendant of Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme, or “One More Chance,” a synth-driven power ballad in the tradition of “Take My Breath Away” and “One More Night”—and “Elevation” plays with similar sounds. It’s the weakest track here; within the context of the song’s mid-tempo funk, L.A. singer Sunni Colón’s velvety falsetto inevitably evokes Pharrell’s turns on “Happy” and “Get Lucky,” and the chords lack the unpredictable frisson of Braxe’s best work. Even the production, while sparkling and satisfyingly spacious, fails to surprise; this time, the déjà vu feels a little too on the nose.

The standout is “Step by Step,” a song so good that the rest of the EP pales in comparison. It’s a languid yacht-rock-disco number that features a chord progression for the ages; the sun-kissed vibe recalls Chicago, Godley & Crème, and Christopher Cross, while the high-end frequencies fan out like the jets of a lawn sprinkler. Clever filtering was always one of the principal hallmarks of French house, and the two producers make great use of it here. In the song’s intro, there’s nothing but tinny midrange frequencies that sound like a battered transistor radio playing your grandparents’ favorite soft-rock station. But then an invisible knob twists and a whole world of color and frequency comes surging to life.

What really makes the song is Noah Lennox, aka Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, who delivers one of his most stirring performances. His multi-tracked harmonies rise upward in gravity-defying layers, like glass-sheathed architectural marvels, and when he hits the high notes, it’s a searchlight streaking across the skyline. Though the lyrics are a hair’s breadth from an inspirational quote—it is, after all, a steadfast ode to taking things step by step—Lennox’s idiosyncrasies have a winning relatability that’s uncommon in platinum-dipped dance music; there’s a conversational familiarity to his drawl, and a loveable, almost goofy quality to some of his couplets (“As I try to find a new way forward/An empty space that I am goin’ for”). Few singers handle the balance of elation and dejection better than Panda Bear, and when he’s in underdog mode, as he is here, it’s impossible not to root for him.

Step by Step doesn’t entirely hang together as an EP. Leading with the best song is understandable, but it would have been better saved for last; listening sequentially, the shift from “Step by Step” to “Love Me” is jarring. But the producers sweeten the pot with “Step by Step - Bonus Beat,” a slow-motion dub that strips out Panda Bear’s lead vocals and leaves only his multi-tracked backing harmonies. Faster than the original, it’s no longer a middle-school slow dance, but an end-credits drive into the sunset. Panda Bear’s voice is unrecognizable; filters teasing him in and out of the background, he’s rendered shapeless and weightless, a chorus of angels. There’s a reason they call this stuff the French touch: It’s tactile, corporeal, a full-frequency embrace that can feel like a divine caress.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Alan Braxe / DJ Falcon - Step by Step EP Music Album Reviews Alan Braxe / DJ Falcon - Step by Step EP Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, July 13, 2022 Rating: 5

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