Words suffer their meanings. They bear connotations piled on by lazy overuse, slowly lose their power and eventually become cliche. But a succinct description of Impermanence, the new full-length from French house producer Agoria, can’t be done without pulling the word “eclectic” out of its shameful retirement. Bypassing the useless Wikipedia entry for tech house, let’s call Impermanence "eclectic house.” In this context, “eclectic” highlights a specifically French sensibility. It’s hard to point to it without succumbing to generalizations, and Impermanence is both a low-key and ambitious album. In the broadest terms, French audio culture encompasses an unhesitating embrace of the Other (Ocora, BYG), as well as a good-natured love of upending expectations (épater la bourgeoisie, “Lemon Incest”). Sure, Agoria’s biggest risks here involve the use of chamber instruments and crappy vocals, but you can detect a modest pranksterism coupled with genuine intellectual curiosity underwriting the whole thing.
Here’s a solid and deep house album with occasional poor judgment. On its strongest tracks (“Panta Rei,” “Grande Torino,” “Libellules”), it conveys a kind of straightforward beauty that is often passed over in house in favor of the more inhabited extremes of populist-progressive/intellectual-minimal. While it’s not raising any questions about dance music circa 2011 or breaking any new ground, it does challenge the listener, albeit in a negative way — the question here is not “what is house?” but rather whether you can hang tight when it starts to feel like a parody of “sexy house.” On the other hand, Agoria’s classical affectations actually leaven the proceedings. Virginian singer Kid A guests on “Kiss My Soul” and “Heart Beating” — the first an unexpectedly emotive Regina Spektor-esque fragment and the second not so much a song as a slab of churning cellos and heavy drums that could be Hounds of Love as a five-minute panic attack. Elsewhere, Agoria calls on the services of two big-name dance-music talents — Carl Craig and Seth Troxler — but relegates them to awkward spoken-word roles. Not crimes by any stretch of the imagination, but there is some embarrassing stuff in here. Is Carl Craig fucking with us on “Speechless”? At this point, the techno figurehead’s presence on a track in anything other than a production capacity must signify a critical mass of self-awareness, and “Speechless” does not disappoint in that regard. All of Craig’s come-ons are eminently quotable, and they fall into two categories: “not as sexy I.R.L.” (“I wanna take the tip of my tongue...and tickle your tonsils”) and “impossible and still not sexy” (“I want to take you to Mars / bend you over in a crater / and have my way with you”). Yet, the production is rich and subtle: fog-machine clouds of synth and sampled strings gather over three or four layers of shakers and bonks, thickening until the first beat of a new cycle blows it all away.
Impermanence doesn’t suffer much from its own bullshit. In a sense, it might even be Agoria’s way of putting his authorial stamp on the album — a small vanity in a serviceable collection of tracks. Striving for a unique, if not exactly new, combination of cushy dance music and post-classical whatever, the album is contemporary especially in its modesty. Like Steffi’s Yours & Mine, its professionalism could be heard as a rebuke to nostalgia. The production gleams, with lots of inky space between synth pads that flash across the stereo field and then founder prettily in delay. At its best, Impermanence allows you to forget about its creator and its flaws and — as Troxler says in “Souless Dreamer” — “just drift.” If Agoria fails to make a bigger splash, it’s partly by design: True to its name, Impermanence is easy to admire and difficult to own.