Many groups are undeniably best experienced live, and the queer French trio Hyphen Hyphen would gladly sort themselves into that category.
Known for their stage presence and ability to put on a memorable show, they are ready to hit the stage again, although their own pandemic-induced introspection period has left them looking for a new direction in their music, too.
C’est la Vie (★★★☆☆) represents an effort to elevate their sound and position themselves as nascent global pop superstars, goals they pull off with varying success.
Hyphen Hyphen has been up-front about their intent to achieve a more international bent with their sound to connect with a more international audience. So if the album’s sound seems more self-consciously accessible and more in line with the current direction of pop music as it is, this is no accident.
That approach is most obvious on its singles, the euphoric opener “Don’t Wait For Me,” and its power ballad follow-up, “Too Young,” which sound more radio-friendly than anything they have done before.
Mostly, their approach works well enough but the predictable side effect is that it causes them to lose some of the edge and sparkle of their last album, the brilliant HH.
Even in the moments where C’est la Vie stumbles or drags, the mononymous lead singer Samanta “Santa” Cotta’s powerhouse vocals are enough to keep it interesting on their own.
“Too Young” comes out strong but stays relatively tame — until Santa starts to really belt, giving it a sudden boost of rawness and pathos that save it from being another bog-standard pop anthem.
Hyphen Hyphen’s calculated shift in sound carries with it problems that are perhaps predictable, but are not dealbreakers in and of themselves. Allowing Santa’s vocals to do the heavy lifting leave some of the tracks feeling a little hollow.
Bringing on songwriter Glenn Ballard, known for his work with Alanis Morisette and Katy Perry, does not seem to have done them many favors. The desire to evolve past the sound of HH, while understandable, leads them to overproduce much of the album, often saturating it with synths when a more stripped-back approach would have allowed the songwriting and vocals to really shine.
One of the biggest strengths of C’est la Vie, though, is that it is a far more interesting album than its radio-ready singles would suggest. Several of the in-between tracks show that the band has done its homework, going far beyond the Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen albums the band has previously name-checked as influences.
“Lie” allows Santa to flex some punky snarl in a way that evokes ’80s and ’90s rawk and pop punk in the best way. “Symphony,” on the other hand, is an evocative, tightly-written ballad that evokes early Sarah McLachlan, albeit with more grit to the vocals.
They carry that same approach through to the acoustically-driven “Cry (Cry Cry),” a track that actually pulls off the satisfying and cathartic slow build that feels tiringly formulaic elsewhere on the album.
C’est la Vie was envisioned by the band as their “most personal” yet, another feature that is not necessarily obvious on the surface. There are flashes of personality and their sense of humor in the opening tracks, and certainly once the album finds its stride, it’s obvious what makes them such a likable group.
Nowhere do they do this better than on the title track, an anthem to taking life less seriously which expertly walks the line between self-deprecating and inspiring.
There’s no doubt that Hyphen Hyphen has all the talent and star quality necessary to become a runaway international success, and their coming North American tour dates may well give them the notoriety they are after.
As their star rises, hopefully it will open up more chances to show and explore the more interesting sides of themselves that peek out on C’est la Vie. If this is their most personal album yet, it is a sign that their best work may very well still be ahead of them.
C’est la Vie is available to stream and purchase. Visit www.hyphenhyphen-music.com.
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