Louis Philippe

Appointment with Venus

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There were many prevailing fashions on the British music scene in the mid-'80s, but Louis Philippe's first solo album flew breezily in the face of them all. It's safe to say that only a label as playfully perverse as Mike Alway's El would have gotten it made in the first place, yet even within its '60s-led pop fantasy ethos, Appointment with Venus sits awkwardly. Certainly, it buys into El's propensity for sun-dappled bossa nova and dreamy harmonies, although such is the preponderance of acoustic guitars and almost total absence of drums that it risked being taken for a folk album. It's no such thing, of course, yet though it straddles genres in a way that would become increasingly familiar as Philippe's career progressed, it does so with much less assurance than later works. What's more, there are songs here that wouldn't have gotten past quality control on subsequent albums, notably the cack-handed "When I'm an Astronaut," whose aesthetic crimes include rhyming "magnets" with "planets." Most striking of all for anyone familiar with his mature work is that Philippe's subsequent mastery of the arranger's art is here barely half-formed. Only a few songs run to actual strings, rather than the wheezy old synth decreed by budgetary constraints, and even those sound thin and unconvincing. Yet for all its flaws, Appointment contains many pointers to the way Philippe's music would deepen and broaden, including his first full-fledged masterpiece, "Fires Rise and Die." This is one of those rare songs -- Brian Wilson's "Surf's Up" is another -- whose exquisite, endlessly unfurling melody seems to have emerged fully formed without reference to anything that has gone before. There's also a tantalizingly brief passage of haunting a cappella harmony -- this time Wilson's "Our Prayer" springs to mind -- bookending the tracks "I Will" and "Eldorado Tales" (another highlight), which provides further confirmation that, even at the outset of his career, Philippe was able to access the kind of ravishing beauty to which most singer/songwriters can't even aspire. Newcomers to his work, however, are advised to start elsewhere.

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