Music Review: Nolwenn Leroy – Bretonne

I’ve become a picky music buyer. I don’t like buying albums unless I’m fairly sure I’ll like a majority of the songs. And no, I don’t find those little 30-second previews on Amazon helpful, especially when an album doesn’t have them. I’m also averse to buying individual mp3 files. When I buy things I like to have something physical in my hand when I’m done. So even though I’ve heard several of the songs from Nolwenn Leroy’s album Bretonne it took me awhile to talk myself into buying it.

Nolwenn Leroy is a French vocalist who got her start by winning a television vocal competition as a teenager. She produced several pop albums that did reasonably well, but soon she realized she was getting older and losing popularity. Now she’s in her 30’s, and has released a more “serious” album in which she explores her Breton roots. The Brittany region of France is culturally divers, with Breton, French, and Celtic influences. A reviewer on Amazon.com credits Leroy and Bretonne with revitalizing interest in Brittany as both a culture and a destination.

I first discovered Leroy through YouTube videos of the several music videos produced from the album. I was hooked, certainly, but also hesitant to buy. For one I’ve been disappointed before by singers who drew me in with their videos, only for me to realize they don’t sound as cute in audio-only. And Leroy is an attractive young lady. Her videos hit all the right seductive notes. That made her a prime candidate for a disappointing album. Besides, it’s been on back-order for some time at Amazon.com.

But I finally found a place in California selling new copies for less than Amazon, so I ordered it. Then I had to wait until I got back from vacation. The next day at work I eagerly popped the disc into my player. Good news! She’s every bit as good in audio-only!

That’s because she’s got a truly pleasant and versatile voice, and doesn’t rely on pop vocal affectations to disguise weakness. She’s been wasted on pop. Her voice can stand on its own. Mind you, though the album is largely a resetting of traditional Breton, French, Celtic, and English folk songs, most of the arrangements have been “pop-ized” for modern audiences. Though her accompaniment includes traditional instruments, it’s a pop sound she’s aiming for, similar to that of Loreena McKennitt.

But the sheer variety of vocal styles she displays is amazing; from near-primal to ethereally lilting, from playful to pensive, from innocent ingénue to throaty worldliness, she can do it all. No song sounds like another. Most of the time I have no idea what she’s singing about to say if she truly understands the text, but the characters she adopts for each song establishes a strong mood that works, and she carries it to the end.

She sings at least four different languages on the album. You have to listen carefully to detect accent in her English, though she occasionally overdoes the English accent just a touch. I can only assume her French and Breton are authentic, and her Gaelic sounds right to my untrained ear.

I bought the Limited Pur Edition, which includes two more songs than the original album release–which is fortunate, as I love them both. I would have a hard time settling on a single most-favorite song from the album, and I’m pleased to say that most of the ones I heard before are not even in the top five. I hate it when the songs you’ve heard are the only ones you like on the entire album. Definitely not the case here.

I don’t know how much of the music beyond her voice she can take credit for. It may be that someone else arranges each piece. Certainly her producer deserves a great deal of credit. What’s most important here is that even if singing is all she brings to the table, it’s more than enough.

Her voice continually delivers; the accompaniment is there to showcase her voice, not cover for it. She sells each piece, often with sublime understatement. One or two songs by themselves are not all that amazing; weigh the album in its entirety and you start to realize just how good she is. It can’t be easy to convincingly set fifteen distinctly different moods with just your voice. If she has favorite songs on this album, you’d never tell. She sells each one like it’s the only one she’s ever sung.

Obviously I’m in love. This album is wonderful to just put on as background music, certainly, but if you choose to pay close attention you’ll be continually and richly rewarded. There’s a depth and richness to the music that keeps me coming back, keeps me paying attention.

Personal favorites are the liltingly longing Siuil A Ruin, the haunting Mna Na H-Eireann, the smooth and playful Ma Bretagne Quand Elle Pleut, the intimate Je Ne Serai Jamais Ta Parisienne, and the wistful Scarborough Fair. But quite frankly, there’s not a bad song on the entire album. This is quite possibly one of the best music investments I’ve made in years. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.

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Update: This post has been getting a lot of traffic, and I finally found out why. I’ve been linked to from Nolwenn.org’s forums, and they are saying some nice things about me and my post. So:

Bienvenue à tout le monde de la Nolwenn.org forums. Je vis dans l’Utah, en fait, pas la Californie, mais je suis un nouveau ventilateur de Nolwenn. Je fais ce que je peux pour éduquer mes concitoyens américains. Le CD que j’ai acheté a été appelé le “limitée Pur Edition” sur Amazon.com, et de ce que je peux dire contient deux chansons supplémentaires: Siuil une ruine, et Scarborough Fair. Il ya quinze titres en tout. (Je ne parle pas français – cela se fait wih Google Translate, de sorte que nous disons en Amérique, «pardonner mon français.»)

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