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Malibu - One Life Music Album Reviews

The ambient, five-track mini-LP from the French producer further accentuates the wide-eyed rapture of her early work.

One of the highlights of Mono No Aware, an ambient compilation released in 2017 by the Berlin experimental label PAN, was “Held,” a beguiling track by a relatively obscure French producer named Malibu. The song moved through four distinct movements in just six minutes; its careful juxtaposition of elements—filmic synthesized strings, ASMR-grade whispers, an eerily Auto-Tuned lullaby—was reminiscent of an immaculately arranged terrarium. But despite the promise contained in that verdant miniature world, for anyone wanting more from Malibu, pickings were slim.


There was a vaporous abstraction on the Astral Plane label’s Psychotropia compilation, from 2015, and a milky ambient sketch, “i can see hills,” that Malibu had self-released on Bandcamp at the beginning of 2017. (Bizarrely, the cover art was a screenshot of the logo of Bedrock Records, John Digweed’s famously emotive progressive-house label, suggesting that for all the seeming seriousness of Malibu’s music, she did not lack for a cryptic sense of irony.) A year after Mono No Aware, she returned to Bandcamp with an Auto-Tuned cover of José González’s “Crosses.” But aside from a few early, exploratory pieces on SoundCloud, that was pretty much it.

One listener eager for more was the ambient composer Julianna Barwick, who discovered the French producer’s music in the background of an Instagram video. “I let the video cycle seemingly endlessly as I thought, this is maybe the most beautiful music I have ever heard,” Barwick writes. “Once I found out who the maker was I scoured the internet for whatever I could get my hands on. It ended up being a treasure hunt—finding bits of her voice and textures hidden in mixes, compilations, and radio shows.” Barwick, a guest curator of Joyful Noise Recordings’ White Label series, the label’s platform for “undiscovered or underappreciated bands,” tapped Malibu for a record.

Malibu’s early music took prettiness—which conventional critical wisdom typically has deemed inferior to more “serious” attributes, like complexity or nuance—and raised it to the level of the sublime. One Life is no exception. If anything, the five-track mini-LP further accentuates the wide-eyed rapture of her early work. Its primary materials are lush strings, endless reverb, and the suggestion of vastness that the pairing of the two implies. It is unabashedly atmospheric, right down to the sounds of rolling surf that accompany two songs (a tribute, perhaps, to Malibu’s oceanographer father).

It’s not hard to hear the ways that Malibu is inspired by film music; any of these songs could work wonders as soundtrack cues. The yearning cycles of the opening “Nana (Like a Star Made for Me)” are reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission, but melody here is generally secondary to mood. She favors long, held tones that arc wistfully toward the horizon; at most, we get a rising, three-note figure like the one at the heart of “Lost at Sea”—less a song than a clothesline from which to hang the airiest of emotions.

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Malibu’s formless melancholy shares something in common with Grouper, but where Grouper is lo-fi, Malibu is hi-def. I could be wrong, but her washes of strings typically sound synthesized or sampled, in any case ersatz—they’re a little too smooth to be the sound of a real orchestra. But this quality adds to their nostalgic air; in their too-perfect surfaces, they echo those films that didn’t have the budget for a full orchestral score, and instead made do with synths and software. This isn’t vaporware, but it faintly resembles that genre’s obsolete-media sheen. Another point of comparison is Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, though where he typically swirled his symphonic samples into murky gloom, Malibu’s music gleams.

One Life’s simplicity can be deceiving. A little like a quartz crystal, what at first looks like a radiant, unblemished surface turns richly contoured when viewed up close. The interplay of contrasting textures is most vivid in the forlorn “Lost at Sea,” one of several tracks to feature the British cellist and songwriter Oliver Coates. For several minutes, the widescreen sweep of piano and strings swells and recedes, tiptoeing right up to the edge of maudlin. Then, faintly, the resiny scrape of Coates’ bow rises in the mix, sawing rapidly away, as though cutting against the grain. The overwhelming consonance turns microtonal; around it all wordless voices hover, diffuse as a sunrise mist. It might just be, as it was for Barwick, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. The gorgeousness of it is almost overwhelming. But squint a little, and a world of microscopic detail flashes into focus.


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