Second album from French four-piece sets this year's pop gold standard

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Cream Passionelle

Is the best and most adventurous contemporary pop music coming out of France? Here’s more evidence with the second album by Tahiti 80. With the possible exception of Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will and Cody Chesnutt’s The Headphone Masterpiece, this is the pop album of 2003 which everyone else will have to beat.

As with Phoenix’s brilliant debut of two years ago, Tahiti 80 have succeeded in marrying blissful ’70s/’80s AOR with up-to-the-minute techniques. One Andy Chase contributes human beatbox to the ballad “Open Book”, but you would hardly notice he was there, such is the alchemy achieved by the group’s leader, Xavier Boyer, who sings and plays guitar, keyboards, piano and bass. Their music is both timeless and timely.

The title song could be this year’s best opening album track. With its chorus of “Wallpaper for the soul/Like the one you stole/A long time ago,” and its alternating between Kid A electro-bleeps and nagging minimalist string lines, it is both disturbing and seductive. Crucial to the music’s success is the Urban Soul Orchestra, with arrangements by veteran Brit Richard Hewson, former Rah Band leader. Uptempo tracks like “1,000 Times” could almost be a non-earnest Style Council. Consider also Hewson’s cleverly bitonal orchestral lines subverting the angst of “The Other Side”.

Straighter pop-rock tracks like “Get Yourself Together”, coupled with Boyer’s affecting choirboy vocals, suggest the route The Boo Radleys should have taken after Wake Up!: deliciously poisoned pop. Note also the subtle contributions of lost pop genius Eric Matthews?the breathy harmony vocals on “Open Book” or the piano maintaining order amid the distended psychedelia of “Fun Fair”. Best of all is “The Train”, which suggests Prefab Sprout as produced by Thomas Bangalter, all breezy chord changes with an avant-electro undertow.

Boyer’s muse is troubled but always vulnerable, and never less than compelling.