So the soundtrack to an imaginary film makes a return in the hands of Hamburg composer/guitarist The Offline (aka Felix Müller) with his new album ‘La couleur de la mer’ (out now via Deep Matter/Root Records). No that doesn’t mean that this intriguing release clunks through a heavy narrative that will one day make the big screen with directors, actors and pop stars hamming it up (ie it’s not a proto ‘Tommy). It more follows the Morricone tradition during his wasteland years or sides with the Barry Adamson canon on Mute in the nineties. The focus is on aura and atmosphere, the landscape in which a movie might find itself. For Morricone that was often some erotica rampant hell and for Adamson Manchester’s dark alleyways but for The Offline it’s the rugged charm of French ‘silver coast’ from Bordeaux to Biarritz.
Müller’s inspiration came from his travels through the region as a photographer capturing the wealthy and wayward lifestyles. Those images inspired his ‘En Clair-Obscur’ EP released on Root last year, a recording that grabbed attention for its glistening instrumental sharpness and neat trimmed euro funk. With the ‘La couleur de la mer’ he broadens those ideas, digging deeper into his love of 60s and 70s original soundtracks and the quirky inventiveness of library music. The Offline’s latest opens the shutters onto a world of beach encounters, hidden villas, heroes, villains, mysterious waterfronts and the occasional chase, with the assistance of an unapologetic retro funk commentary.
For ‘La couleur de la mer’ The Offline has significantly expanded the orchestration to match the new album’s ambition. There’s a crowded cast of thirteen players in the ensemble, a significant shift from the tight soul jazz five piece that cruised through ‘En Clair-Obscur’, but from the off you get the necessity. Thème de la couleur de la mer looks over some eerie night time waters with lapping woodwind patterns and scatting flute before a chunky mid-pace rhythm picks up the promenade. Surprises are around the corner: the melody is taken up by a tip-toeing xylophone; Müller’s electric guitaring trills through the bridge; and the strings boost those final moments. Covering this amount of ground in under four minutes requires a broad sound palette and that’s what The Offline has allowed himself.
That ‘with strings’ lushness brings more drama to the smoochy balladry of Jeanne et Alain, where the harpsichord toned keys add the mystery and tinkling piano the romance. The glory days of easy-listening and teak radiograms linger here but this is no pastiche. The Offline casts a fresh eye once more over the possibilities of this forgotten piece of pop heritage and as you grow into the album it definitely works. The detail and dedication of Müller and his co-producer Timor Litzenberger are key to this success. They’ve committed to making this music in real time with real players, a labour of love that stoically ignores the digital short cuts available today.
Not that ‘La couleur de la mer’ is notable purely because of such an approach. There are consistent highlights on the album that give it an edge. Cap Camarat opens with big rock chords before a nifty switch to a soulful swing, wah-wah chops included. As the tune’s themes repeat, bulked out with orchestration and spiced with small details, you recognise the attention devoted to these arrangements. Then there’s the slinky jazz funk of No.33 which is allowed to stretch out purposefully, pushed on by Kimo Eiserbeck’s ripping sax break and closing with a string driven assent. The balmy stripped back shuffle of Enfin, la paix also stands out. A brief and beautiful guitar instrumental, all brushed snare and bluesy strolling, you get those The Offline/Khruangbin comparisons although others might shout ‘Albatross’.
Müller’s fret work also takes pole position on the skittering funk of Le motard, played with economy, clarity and a Tommy Guerrero unhurried touch. The American guitarist’s classic ‘Soul Food Taqueria’ may or may not be a reference point for The Offline, but a similar connectivity with Library Music beats (think The Mohawks/’The Champ’) underpins the ‘La couleur de la mer’ groove. Whatever the roots, Axelrod or Mancini, KPM or Percy Faith, The Offline has produced an album that’s more than a curio. Yes it’s quirky, yes it’s clever plus in no way in your face but dig down beneath any easy listening tag. You’ll soon get to appreciate its intricacy and become lost in the cinematic sweep that The Offline has created.
Get your copy of ‘La couleur de la mer‘ by The Offline from your local record store or direct from Roots/DeepMatter Records HERE