With a name like French Style Furs, you might be expecting something decadent, but also something once organic now without its bodily core. The name has its origins in a (gag-worthy, depending on your perspective) meet-cute tale of reunited friends and an eclectic Brooklyn storefront. Thankfully, the group’s debut LP, Is Exotic Bait, while shimmering and attractive, isn’t nearly as hollow as their chosen name might suggest.
Vocalist Nathan Willett, long of Cold War Kids, has one of the most iconic voices in contemporary rock, restless and unique, stretching into registers both impressive and grating. Only a diehard few would contend that Cold War Kids achieved the great potential they hinted at with their sterling debut, 2006’s Robbers and Cowards. Fans of Willett and that band, though, are likely to be pleasantly surprised to hear his pipes in a new setting.
That setting is provided by Willett’s Cold War Kids bandmate Matt Maust on bass and their longtime friend and We Barbarians’ Nathan Warkentin on drums. Further credit goes to the diverse range of studio musicians — including horn arrangements by Wyndham Boylan-Garnett (perhaps best known for his work on Elvis Perkins in Dearland) and backing vocals from Haley Dekle (Dirty Projectors) — whose fingerprints help create an ever-shifting landscape that keeps the sound fresh from song to song.
One album highlight, “All the Way Down”, kicks the door in with a pounding classic rock drumbeat with splashy cymbals that would have made Bonzo blush. As Willett does his thing, tickling his unique register, the brain trust pushes for more, the song shifted in an unexpected direction upon the entry of a hummed choral track supported by a serpentine synth riff.
The lyrics of “All the Way Down” tell of a man’s metaphorical descent “deeper than a diamond mine” and into the very bowels of hell. This man returns from his journey, essentially a total badass. Having seen the worst, he is now indestructible to the evils and dangers of the world. If you’re hearing religious undertones of rebirth and redemption, you’re right. Lyrics for Is Exotic Bait were plucked from the poetry of Thomas Merton, a 20th Century Trappist monk and mystic.
Considering this religious foundation, Is Exotic Bait does a commendable job of avoiding an evangelical tone, instead letting the often surreal lyrics blend in with the ever-shifting sonic backdrop. Ostensibly, “Solitary Life” tells of a monk’s isolation, but rather than dwell on this message, the song opens with a raw bass line that proceeds into a wild menagerie of rollicking percussion, multi-toned harmony, and slick horn scales — a rich foundation that Willett’s voice and the spiritual lyrics never fight, but instead move and shake within.
Amid several hard-rocking tracks, two of the most successful are the subdued “Miami U R About 2 B Surprised” and album closer “Clairvaux Prison”. In both cases, the down-tempo pace helps foreground the exceptional composition and production. Willett’s intonation is best when restrained. Combined with the band’s atmospheric swirl of backing vocals and moody instrumentation, the songs approach a tone appropriately divine.
Clocking in at a lean 10 tracks over 35 minutes, Is Exotic Bait never threatens to overstay its welcome, but an opportunity feels missed with this brevity. Despite being solid throughout, the album never coheres into a whole greater than itself, brushing against grand themes without fully grasping them, building toward a climax that never comes. For what could be categorized as a “side project” for members of two working bands, it’s an impressive debut and hopefully the first of many collaborations between these friends.
Essential Tracks: “All the Way Down”, “Solitary Life”, and “Clairvaux Prison”