24 September 2008

AMG review round-up, volume VII: Labrador Edition

I first heard about Labrador records eighteen months ago, via the P4k review (I think it was) of their 100th-release retrospective box, "A Complete History of Popular Music," which I later picked for cheap-cheap at Academy. Turns out that title's (slightly) less of a gag than you think it is... they really do come off as the premier, "definitive" outlet for excellent [Swedish, indie-]pop(ular) music [1999-2007], and the quality of their output is impressively high, by and large, although that part of that perception is definitely down to some shrewd self-marketing, and there's also something about the neatness of it all - design, organization, numbering. [I think I've recently become a true lover of record labels, as a category unto themselves; Daptone, Numero, Light in the Attic, Lo, Leaf, Sincerely Yours, Hybris, Soul Jazz, and Ghostly Int'l, among others, have all caught my attention in the last couple of years, and I've spent an inordinate amount of time on their websites]

'08 has been a pretty low-key year for the label, with only a handful of releases including the new Pelle Carlberg and Sound of Arrows EP which I'm currently worming my way around, and a short stack of Club 8 re-issues. Meanwhile, I've spent much of the year familiarizing myself with their back-catalog, by way of filling in the gaps in AMG's coverage, of which there were surprisingly many, given the consistent boosterism of Tim Sendra (and now sold-out speed-walker Margaret Reges - remind me never to write an AMG bio of myself.) Anyway, here's what I've found out so far:

Tribeca: bio and Dragon Down review

Dragon Down is uncommonly ruminative for an album of synth-based pop, combining a finely tuned ear for hooks and inventive, often playful synthesizer arrangements with a mature, songwriterly sensibility in lyrical dissections of love and pain that place a definite emphasis on the latter. Right out of the gate, "La, la, la etc." belies its sturdy electro-disco groove and guardedly hopeful lyrics about the prospect of domestic happiness (opening line: "So I love you/I guess that's a good thing") with an air of restraint and weariness that's echoed in the laconic title/chorus. Even the most musically vibrant songs -- the driving "Hide Away," with its deliciously cheesy faux-Chinese riffs, and the massively buoyant dream pop single "Solitude" -- are more than a little tinged with sadness, while the understated, slow-grooving lament "The Big Hurt" slides into hammering hard techno in its final minute, as if to viscerally transfer its anguish onto the listener. The album's second half, in particular, is markedly melancholic and muted, though Lasse Lindh's indelible melodies and sweetly personable vocals, along with the supple programmed beats, help keep it from becoming unbearably bleak. The most striking moment, however, is less tormented than it is disarming, funny, and even a little sexy, albeit uneasily so: "Her Breasts Were Still Small," a strangely somber account of an early sexual experience (apparently the protagonist was 14 at the time of the events in question, which may mitigate some of the creepiness in the song's title) manages to be sweetly nostalgic and disturbing at the same time, with music -- alternately tense and dreamy -- which fits that duality perfectly.

Sambassadeur: Sambassadeur review

Sambassadeur's endearingly winsome debut album is textbook indie pop, of the gentle, bookish variety purveyed by the Lucksmiths, the Clientele, the Go-Betweens, and any number of other oft-cited luminaries, not to mention several of their Labrador labelmates including Acid House Kings and Starlet. So what sets this Swedish foursome apart in a sea of softly strummy soundalikes? Nothing much that one can easily point to, although there is something special in their ability to make even perfectly clean and crisp productions sound utterly dreamy and wistful. While the album never strays far from the basic template of soft indie pop (best exemplified by the standout "Between the Lines"), there is plenty of subtle variety here, with synths, beat boxes, and melodica adding instrumental color, and loving stylistic nods to shoegaze, post-punk/new wave and classic French pop (the Serge Gainsbourg cover "Chanson de Prévert" -- the band is named after another Gainsbourg song.) As well executed as all of it is, the record does undeniably trend toward the generic -- but in a sense that just makes Sambassadeur all the more comforting, and a sure bet for fans of the genre.

The Radio Dept: Lesser Matters and Pet Grief reviews

The Radio Dept. are an indie rock band who play fuzzed-out, ramshackle pop songs, and Lesser Matters, their debut full-length, was self-recorded in homes and small studios with unabashedly lo-fi production values, but it somehow manages to project a timeless elegance and aplomb that belie this unassuming provenance. The album crystallizes and perfects a certain strain of understated, sophisticated, genially gritty modern pop/rock, drawing on a host of familiar 1980s post-punk touchstones from shoegaze and noise pop (My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain) to vintage indie pop (Orange Juice, Felt) and major-league rockers like the Cure and New Order (both of whom, not so coincidentally, appeared alongside the Radio Dept. on Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette soundtrack) to create something that doesn't seem like it should be all that extraordinary, but ends up as much more than the sum of its parts.

In the chorus of Pet Grief's lead single and catchiest song, Radio Dept. head Johan Duncanson makes the touching if rather petty confession that the only reason he's able to withstand his jealous despair is the knowledge that his would-be romantic rival has "the worst taste in music." Well, if it makes him feel better, there's certainly no doubting his and his bandmates' taste -- like their buzzy, buzzed-about debut, Pet Grief evinces an impeccably fashionable roll call of influences from British post-punk and shoegaze to more recent electronic indie and dream pop, and if that's not enough, the hook of "What Will Give?" offers the gratuitously hip reference: "I want to hide, like Jandek before playing live." But taste only gets you so far -- if you're going to wear your influences on your sleeve, you'd better have your heart on it too, if not some other tricks up it as well.

The Legends: Public Radio and Facts and Figures reviews

The Legends' sophomore set effectively abandoned the raucously upbeat, '60s-influenced noise-pop of their surprise indie hit debut, proffering instead a tastefully moody if rather antiseptic evocation of 1980s British post-punk. Joy Division, New Order, Felt and The Cure are among the all-too-obvious reference points -- a fashionable list in 2006, certainly, which makes the album feel like an artifact of its time instead of a canny throwback -- but Public Radio pointedly lacks any of spark and personality of those bands. Indeed, it seems as if Johan Angergård was determined to hone in on the fundamental elements common to the sound of those and similar groups, and distill them into a pitch-perfect archetype of their era without any overtly distinguishing characteristics. (Titling one of the songs "I Want To Be Like Everybody Else" is a pretty decent indication, and also suggests he's not doing it without a bit of a smirk.) If that was his goal, he's succeeded admirably here: Public Radio is lavishly laid out, almost wall-to-wall, with atmospheric synth washes, pensive muted guitar leads, and wispy introverted vocals (wanting only for the pained gloominess of a Curtis or Smith), all of it practically buried under layers of reverb.

...More than any of Angergård's other outfits, the Legends make pop music with overt reference to other pop music, and Facts and Figures is no exception. Just for starters, the album shares its opening line with U2's The Joshua Tree, and there's at least one direct Belle & Sebastian quote in the lyrics. In a display of pure music geekery, the liner notes contain a list of recommended records, two for each year from 1974 to 2006, which reads like a road map to the touchstone obsessions evident throughout the Legends' first (Jesus & Mary Chain, Comet Gain, Broder Daniel, presumably others had the list extended earlier) and second albums (New Order, the Cure, Felt, et cetera.) (Those looking for clues to future stylistic shifts might take note that both Barry White and quirky Boston songwriter Don Lennon are featured with three albums apiece.) The inclusions most relevant to Facts and Figures span the entire time range, from Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk (the album design nods to Trans-Europe Express) through Momus and the Russian Futurists and, most pertinently, the Pet Shop Boys. To put it in other words: this is the Legends' synth pop album. Perhaps because synth pop as a style, despite its knee jerk association with the new wave '80s, has remained remarkably relevant, resilient, and versatile, Facts and Figures comes off as the most comfortably modern-sounding and, somewhat expectedly, the most distinctive of the Legends' stylistic forays. Though it flirts with the sort of all-out indie dance-pop one might anticipate, and despite love-struck lyrics like those of the shimmering opener "Heart," this is a curiously conflicted, often emotionally cold album -- palpably the work of an isolated individual rather than a collaborative band. At times the internal disconnect between music and lyrics is downright hypocritical: the insecure downer of a title track laments "I don't like dancing and I don't like to rock," while the self-explanatory "Disco Sucks" (more accurately listed as "Discos Suck" in the lyric sheet) is practically apoplectic -- never mind that these are two of the catchiest and most propulsive tunes on the album. (Dance-hating dance music is, perhaps, a slight modification of the sugar-coated cynicism that has long been an indie pop staple.) Dance phobia or no, Facts and Figures is an impressively solid album of electronic pop that deserves to stand among Angergård's finest work and win fans among discophiles and wallflowers alike.

Wan Light: Let's Wake Up Somewhere Else and Carmaline reviews

Wan Light singer Krister Svensson's voice is nearly a dead ringer for that of Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue, which means it's also not unlike Neil Young's -- high, reedy, perhaps a little bit of an acquired taste, but surprisingly affective and resonant. The Swedish duo's music also bears out some broader comparisons to those artists, and to California's like-minded Radar Bros., in its power to evoke an expansive sense of moodiness and melancholy that's comforting and gently hopeful rather than despondent. What sets them apart are the varied and often unexpected ways they go about creating such a mood, which are remarkably eclectic considering the general consistency of affect, and their simple but endearing songwriting, which is unerringly melodic but never feels straightforwardly poppy and upbeat even at its peppiest. Let's Wake Up Somewhere Else encompasses earnest, gently drifting ballads, jangly pop songs built around snappy percussion loops and acoustic guitars, and assorted brief instrumental interludes. Texturally it ranges from the sparse, traditionalist piano accompaniment of "Freedom Fighters" to the skittering electronics of "Soul Sisters" to the lush blend of synths, symphonics, and an oddly poignant computer-voice sample on the gorgeous standout "The Astronauts." It's a lot of territory to cover in 40 minutes, but Let's Wake Up never comes across as rushed or overly ambitious, merely as a relaxed and refreshing glimpse into the hearts and minds of a couple of talented but unpretentious sentimentalists. As inventive as it is listenable, this is exactly the sort of album that habitually inspires laments about inevitable and undeserved obscurity, so spread the word; seek it out, soak it in, and share it with your loved ones.

Douglas Heart: bio and Douglas Heart review

As luscious and lazy as a late summer night, Douglas Heart's debut is perfectly tailored for a spot in the after-hours listening canon somewhere roughly in between the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session and Sigur Ròs' Ágaetis Byrjun -- if it's not quite as transcendent or groundbreaking as those sui generis classics, it's notably warmer and more glowing than either. The folk psychedelia of Mazzy Star and Beach House and the hazy space rock of Auburn Lull are perhaps even closer stylistic reference points, but there's a confidence and subtle positivity that sets Douglas Heart apart. Wafting in on a cloud of white noise and backwards guitar and vocal snippets before settling into a mild country-pop lope, opener "Smoke Screen" is actually the album's most kinetic moment, with some especially enjoyable bouncing bass work, but it aptly sets the tone for the album by introducing its two most defining sonic features; Malin Dahlberg's arrestingly pure but strangely twangy voice and the rich, clarion sound of Ramo Spatalovic's Hammond organ.

Laurel Music: bio and This Night and the Next review

Malin Dahlberg's striking singing voice -- clear and sweet, with a curiously accented blend of polish and twang -- worked wonderfully with the hazy dream pop sound of Douglas Heart, but it's an even more satisfying fit for Tobias Isaksson's rootsy, sentimental songwriting. That exquisite combination is the underlying source of Laurel Music's considerable charm, as manifested on the delicate, understated, and all-too-brief This Night and the Next. Split roughly evenly between sparse, tender ballads and more upbeat, shuffling country-pop numbers ("No One Wants Forever" appears once in each style), the whole album radiates warmth and light-hearted intimacy. The band's cited influences skew towards folk and indie pop -- the gentle New York outfit Ida is perhaps the most resonant point of reference -- but there's an obvious country presence here as well, overt but not overstated, what with the Isaksson's rhythmic fingerpicking, judicious use of harmonica and pedal steel, and that elusive twinge in Dahlberg's voice. It's an appealing, instantly familiar sound that has as much to do with 1960s Bakersfield as it does with 2000s Gothenburg, and in Laurel Music's hands it feels quietly, effortlessly timeless.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

Nice reviews!

To be fair, I really can walk super fast. ;)