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Album Review

Given that one of Louis Philippe's strongest suits had always been the knack of making a shoestring budget sound like a million bucks, the lavish resources deployed on Azure — nothing less than a 60-piece symphony orchestra — came as something of a shock. Yet beyond the question of how such a feat could be economically viable lay the more important one of whether Philippe and his arranger, Danny Manners, had made it work. After all, there had been many previous attempts to fuse classical music and pop, from Rick Wakeman to the Divine Comedy. Almost invariably, the results were disappointing, with the orchestra supplying little more than pseudo-romantic bombast or a cosmetic, status-enhancing sheen, in both cases applied to songs after the event. Here, though, song and orchestration function as a single entity, and in fact it's genuinely hard to imagine songs like "Your Life," "You'll Never Catch the Sun," and "Partir" without their serenely beautiful settings for the Prague Philharmonic. Philippe's harmonic language frequently ventures into jazz and classical territory, so his songs are better equipped than most to hold their own in such exalted company. Furthermore, anyone who has previously dismissed him as a fey-voiced crooner of marshmallow pop tunes would do well to consider "Your Life," whose soaring climaxes allow him to display a previously unsuspected soulfulness. Manners, too, excels throughout, bringing an especially magical Debussian delicacy to the strings that dapple "You'll Never Catch the Sun." Elsewhere, the title track is a charming homage to Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, and the hushed interpretation of Andy Partridge's "I Can't Own Her" arguably tops XTC's own version, released the same year though recorded later. Only the poignant George Best tribute "When Georgie Died" and the unashamedly lightweight "An Ordinary Girl" seem to have strayed in from another, more intimate album. For all its manifold beauties and risk-taking, Azure was disgracefully ignored by the music press on both sides of the Atlantic. When one day they come to write the story of pop's — mostly catastrophic — dalliances with classical music, perhaps then its true value will be recognized.

Biography

Genre: Pop

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s

Louis Philippe may still be best known as a purveyor of creamy pop confections for Mike Alway's wonderfully eccentric él label, yet his work continued to deepen and develop long after él bit the dust in 1989. He once described his music as "covering the range from pure bubblegum to symphonic sweep, with detours via jazz and soul along the way. A typical album might mix influences from vintage pop, French chanson, Ravel, bossa nova, Duke Ellington, the Shirelles, or the Beach Boys, while classical...
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Azure, Louis Philippe
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