Alan Braxe / Fred Falke: The Upper Cuts (2023 Edition)

French house isn’t so much a style of music as a state of mind—an elusive feeling, an inimitable flavor, like saudade or saffron. You know it when you hear it. The genre’s characteristic chords exude color like a blush rising beneath the skin; its low-pass filters caress their drum loops like silk slips off a collarbone. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo invented the sound with early singles like “Da Funk” and “Burnin’”; they shaped its dimensions and sparked its mischievous essence on their respective labels Roulé and Crydamore. But more than any other artist, their acolyte Alan Braxe—whose debut single, “Vertigo,” was Rolué’s third release—defined the style’s uniquely Gallic finesse: that rushing, rolling fusion of club tropes with easy-listening harmonies and rich, full-fat fromage. The secret of the French touch lies encoded in the creamy whorls and ridges of Braxe’s musical fingerprints.

The Return of French House Pioneers Alan Braxe and DJ Falcon

The Upper Cuts, originally released in 2005, gathers the majority of Braxe’s early solo productions and collaborations, including the monumental “Music Sounds Better With You”—a filter-house unicorn created with Bangalter and Benjamin Diamond in the one-off trio Stardust—and his work with bassist and fellow producer Fred Falke. This new reissue, which follows Braxe’s recent triumphant return alongside his cousin DJ Falcon, makes a few changes—a stray hip-hop production is out, a 2002 remix for Britney Spears is in—and adds two tracks from Braxe’s 2013 EP Moments in Time, plus two brand-new songs, including a plush nu-disco collab with Annie. French house is neither particularly hot right now nor so outmoded that it’s poised for revival, which might make the timing seem curious. But the style’s influence weaves through decades of pop music, from the era recently retconned as “indie sleaze” through yacht rock and chillwave and on to the contemporary disco-pop revival; even the Weeknd got in on the action. The Upper Cuts is a reminder that, three decades after Daft Punk announced a new wave of French dance, the retro-futurist sound has achieved something like timelessness.

The chief lesson that Daft Punk took from the “teachers” of the house canon was the value of simplicity—that all you really need to achieve dance-music immortality is a whip-cracking snare and an acid line capable of melting steel. Braxe internalized that ethos. Broken down into their constituent parts, his tracks convey a wealth of emotion with just a few starkly delineated elements. Synths zap, drums crack. The mood vacillates between electrifying drama and sneaky deadpan. Jagged arpeggios resemble breaking-news alerts from the nascent days of cable TV; Falke’s basslines are oil-slicked and serpentine, virtuosic funk delivered with a slap and a wink.

The profound economy of Braxe’s production is apparent from the first song on The Upper Cuts, 2000’s “Most Wanted.” The track opens with a 16-bar loop of kick drum, laser chirp, and the faintest hint of conga, distilling the entire pantheon of disco into a three-syllable koan. When the song’s central synth riff finally drops, it’s shrouded by a band-pass filter, muting both the high and low frequencies, and setting up a delicious hit of dopamine every time he lets the full spectrum come flooding back in. That’s it. That’s the whole song.

Unlike Daft Punk, Braxe was not unduly influenced by Chicago—at least, not Chicago house. But Chicago the band? Feathery soft rock of their ilk is key to Braxe’s sentimentalist menagerie. “In Love With You” (the lone single credited to the Paradise, Braxe’s duo with singer Romuald Louverjon) is a starry-eyed homage to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” borne aloft on airy choral pads, chrome-plated electric piano, and full-throated ardor, while “You’ll Stay in My Heart” takes its stylistic cues from middle-school slow dances. Seventies AOR is a major touchstone: Braxe’s beats are blocky things, heavy on big, backbeat snares, thundering toms, and skull-thwacking cowbell so prominent that it verges on parody. “Arena” slathers a drum solo in gargantuan reverb, audience chants, and ersatz applause, a clever simulacrum of oversized stadium rock that is both slyly funny and slightly uncanny, like a concert in the metaverse.

“Arena” and the similarly hollowed-out “Intro,” which are mostly just drums, are outliers in their percussive, monochrome palettes; Braxe’s signature is his luxe, sensual use of harmony. His chords are opulent yet efficient machines for the delivery of emotion; he’s fond of unexpected modulations that catch you off guard, no matter how many times you’ve been through the changes’ slalom curves. Much like his teasing use of the filter, Braxe’s counterintuitive chord progressions—like the giddy twists and pivots of the new wave-flavored “Rubicon,” the album’s exuberant highlight—deliver a concentrated burst of pleasure with every wrong-footing resolution.

But even when Braxe nods to rock or pop, these remain tracks rather than songs, anchored in the dance-music continuum. When there are lyrics, they’re a pithy hook. There are no verses or choruses or bridges; each track’s arrangement is reduced to a single set of changes cycling ’round until the cows come home. Even the Chaka Khan-sampling “Music Sounds Better With You,” which spent two weeks at No. 2 on the UK pop charts in 1998, entertains only the slightest variation to its endlessly repeated chords. The basic measure of unit in all these songs is the loop. The loop is fundamental, holy—honed to its essence and tweaked just enough to keep it alive. Braxe’s opening and closing filters give these rigidly repeating sequences the illusion of movement, the way dancing flames may once have allowed cavemen to “animate” static paintings. No wonder the joy he evokes feels so primal.

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Alan Braxe & Fred Falke: The Upper Cuts (2023 Edition)