03 December 2008

AMG review round-up, volume IX: scandinavian singer-songwriter special

some of my current favorite practitioners of singer-songwriter (which by the way is a genre), all of them from norway (marit, ane kinda) or sweden (everyone else) except for herman dune, who are from sweden and switzerland by way of france and apparently the lower east side or something. (also, herman dune and billie the vision are technically "bands," but we'll let it slide...) so, roughly in order of how good they are (or, rather, how excited i am about them at the moment):

Marit Larsen: Under The Surface and The Chase reviews

Nordic roots-pop starling Marit Larsen scored her second Norwegian number one with "If A Song Could Get Me You, the utterly charming lead single from her sophomore outing The Chase (which itself debuted atop her country's album chart.) In a typically starry-eyed twist on the song-about-a-song concept, the tune finds Larsen proposing to write a song in whatever style it will take to win her beloved's affections: "I could try with a waltz/I could try rock and roll/I could try with the blues." There's no doubt that she's capable but, as it turns out, she doesn't spend much time with those styles on The Chase (though "Steal My Heart" and "I've Heard Your Love Songs" are both waltzes, and lovely ones too; respectively dainty and sumptuous.) Conspicuously absent from that list are pop and country, the two genres that most closely encapsulate her general musical approach. Larsen began her professional career as one half of the teen pop act M2M, and she hasn't strayed too far from that group's trendsetting brand of earnest, accessible bubble-folk - growing into her twenties may have helped her develop a satisfying emotional complexity to accompany her penchant for pop melodicism, but her intrinsic sweetness remains resoundingly undimmed. Meanwhile, her lavish sentimentality, narrative lyrical bent, and colorful instrumental choices (mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dobro, along with more baroque, orchestral touches) suggest a link with country that was evident on her solo debut and is even more pronounced here (sometime between the two albums, Larsen started a low-profile sideline stint playing in the Oslo-based traditionalist bluegrass band Elwood Caine.)

Of course, there's not necessarily much of a gap between classicist songwriter pop and country music in its chart-friendly contemporary incarnation. It doesn't feel like a stretch, for instance, to describe Larsen as a Scandinavian Taylor Swift, considering that her differences from the rising country star have more to do with geography and vocal inflection than anything musically substantial (though she has a not-insignificant seven years on Swift, experience-wise.) Much like Swift's own sophomore album, which was released around the same time, The Chase is an expertly crafted musical statement that balances rootsiness and polish, leavens its maturity and poise with undeniable flashes of youthful energy, and displays considerable mainstream appeal regardless of genre classifications. Indeed, it exudes confidence, not just musical and writerly, but - this album's most striking difference from its predecessor - emotional as well, as Larsen chides an indecisive new lover ("Is It Love?"), announces her plans to walk out on a sleeping, unwitting partner ("Ten Steps," whose sanguine empowerment marks a complete reversal from the crippling paranoia of the debut's "This Time Tomorrow"), and reflects calmly on the existential strangeness and unsettling simplicity of post-breakup life ("This Is Me, This Is You"), all with an assertiveness and aplomb worlds away from the passivity and hesitance that permeated Under the Surface. Even as it deals with some difficult situations, then, The Chase is far from a downer; and when things are working out in Larsen's favor - as on the light-hearted title track and preposterously giddy new-love ode "Addicted" - it's absolutely effervescent.

(bad cover art alert in effect for everything that follows except maybe maia hirasawa)

Ane Brun: Changing of the Seasons review

The title track of Ane Brun's fourth studio album (only her second U.S. release), "Changing of the Seasons" makes reference to all four -- "the relief of spring, the intoxication of summer rain, the clearness of fall, how winter makes me reconsider it all" -- but there's no question that this is music for the more pensive and bittersweet of seasonal shifts: the onset of autumn, the drift into winter. As we often do when the weather draws us inward, these poetically tender songs contemplate the comforts and challenges of togetherness and solitude, reflecting on relationships with a mix of resignation and sweetness, a mature emotionalism that is no less poignant for its reassurance and composure. Brun's keenly observed relationship songs turn on touchingly deployed metaphors (love as a jigsaw puzzle; a faded daydream of tree house domesticity; the emotional armor of a reticent lover turned tangible and rusty) and moments of subtle emotional shifts: restless disenchantment dispelled by a waking lover's instinctive embrace; the difference between asking someone never to leave and realizing that the asking is irrelevant. She invests isolation with a comparable complexity, variously plucking up her bruised confidence ("Raise My Head"), honing in on the fleeting seconds of unexpected calm amid bouts of anxiety ("Ten Seconds"), surrendering to find solace in the recordings of Gillian Welch (and Norwegian ambient producer Biosphere), and offering a curiously soothing fatalism in the lovely "Lullaby for Grownups." Befitting the ruminative tone of the words, the music strikes a balance between sparsity and lushness, augmenting Brun's acoustic guitar with touches of marimba, bouzouki, and piano as well as elegant, enveloping string arrangements, many of them by rising star Nico Muhly. At the center of it all is Brun's curious and affecting voice, conveying the blend of expressiveness and restraint that these songs seem to invite, and recalling vocalists as disparate as Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos, sometimes all at once. A thoroughly captivating work from an undeniable talent.

Herman Dune: Next Year in Zion review

Next Year in Zion reportedly marks the first album that head Herman Dune David Ivar has written while he was happy. It certainly shows, as many of these songs are practically bursting with love and good cheer. In other hands, unabashedly lovestruck fare like "On a Saturday," "My Best Kiss," and "When the Sun Rose Up This Morning" might come off trite, but the Dunes approach them with such warmth and unaffected sweetness that it's easy to be won over. Not everything here is so unrelentingly sunny, but there is an endearingly shambolic, lived-in quality to David-Ivar's sappily prosaic narratives and quirky slant rhymes that reflects a persistent, modest optimism in the face of irrational fears ("Baby Is Afraid of Sharks"), awkward roommate situations ("Afternoon Dance Party"), the fugitive criminal lifestyle ("Lovers Are Waterproof"), and even environmental devastation ("Poison in the Rain.") The music reflects that lyrical positivity with a laid-back, infectious charm that draws on American folk forms (with occasional calypso, mariachi, klezmer, and flamenco accents) and also harkens back to '50s and '60s pop in way a reminiscent of Jonathan Richman and Jens Lekman. Beyond the Richman/Lekman-esque core duo, Next Year in Zion is fleshed out with percussion from El Doctor Schönberg, girl group backing vocals by the Babyskins, the N'awlins flavor of the Jon Natchez Bourbon Horns, and electric guitar solos courtesy of the Wave Pictures' Dave Tattersall. Though it initially comes off as fairly slight, this reveals itself to be a rewarding, idiosyncratic effort that bears repeated listens; a pleasure from start to finish. [no clue about the title.]

Billie the Vision and the Dancers: bio and I Used to Wander These Streets reviews

The fourth album from the lovable misfits in Billie the Vision & the Dancers doesn't offer any significant changes from the three that came before it; it's just another easily enjoyable batch of sweet, playful, sincere ramshackle twee pop. There are still plenty of love-lorn lyrics centered around the fictitious everypeople Lily and Pablo, though Lars Lindquist also pens some particularly personal narratives, recounting his childhood move from Denmark to Sweden in "Stuttering Duckling," tenderly delving into candid sexual realism in "You're Not Giving Up on Me," and detailing an eye-opening, guilt-ridden experience in London's queer nightclub scene in the poignant "Swedish Sin." Other highlights include the bright, sunny pop of opener "Lily from the Middleway Street," the shuffle-ska "Groovy," a guest vocal from Annika Norlin (of Hello Saferide) on "I Belong to You," and a surprisingly effective Guns N' Roses interpolation on the break-up ballad "Liar and a Thief."

(from here on, we can play connect the dots from artist to artist...)

Firefox AK: Madame, Madame! If I Were a Melody reviews

As suggested by the shift from the bright yellow-orange of Madame, Madame! to muted violet on the cover of If I Were a Melody, Andrea Kellerman's second album as Firefox AK is a markedly moodier affair than her first, simultaneously darker, edgier, and more subdued. It actually encompasses a broader emotional range, from lush, mellow material like "The River" and the nearly beatless "Shero" to the aggressive thrust of first single "Winter Rose" -- a duet with her husband Rasmus Kellerman (aka Tiger Lou), who wails the chorus hook ("Give me some pleasure/Give me some joy/Just give me something I can destroy") with a blank-eyed electro-clash angst -- and the pummeling hard house of the well-named "Techno Tears." Still, the overall effect is less immediate, and more understated, than the infectiously scrappy Madame!, which may have something to do with the relative absence of gritty, rock-styled guitars. The word "mature" feels slightly incongruous, but if nothing else Melody is more accomplished and self-assured from a musical and production standpoint -- none of it was recorded in a bedroom this time out, and it shows. Kellerman and her production/programming accomplice, Viktor Ginner, spent several months in Berlin working on the album, and they clearly soaked up a lot of inspiration from the electronic dance scene there, resulting in a decidedly modern-sounding collection of more refined (not necessarily more relaxed) beats and pieces that recall the sophisticated techno of Ellen Allien and the Kompakt stable, as well as the electro-pop of the Junior Boys (whose Matt Didemus mixed the album) and Kellerman's countrymen the Knife. None of this comes at the expense of her sumptuous way with vocal hooks -- this album has plenty of them, amply showcasing Kellerman's sublime vocals, which were either much better recorded this time or else have developed considerably (probably both). They resonate with unusual warmth against the synthetic austerity of the arrangements, especially on the poignant "Pushing," with its stirring chorus shift from minor to major, and "Flutter of a Wing," which comes closest to the simple pop pleasures of the debut despite an unsettling lyric inspired by the lack of birds during Kellerman's time in Berlin. Although it may take a few more spins to sink in, Melody is a dramatic step forward from its predecessor, a complex and rewarding effort that places Firefox AK right at forefront of modern electronic pop.

Hello Saferide: Would You Let Me Play This EP 10 Times a Day and More Modern Short Stories From... reviews

Hello Saferide's second album is called More Modern Short Stories from Hello Saferide, in perhaps self-effacing but apt reference to the literary qualities of journalist/frontwoman Annika Norlin's frequently verbose songwriting. Coincidentally or not, the most inspired moments here, musically as well as lyrically, come when she dresses up her typically autobiographical/confessional mode with an injection of creative fiction: the martial "Overall," wherein she and producer Andreas Mattsson role play concerned parents fretting over their neo-Nazi son (shades of XTC's "No Thugs in Our House"); the rocking "Middle Class," which indulges in Bonnie and Clyde fantasies about a complete stranger; and standout first single "Anna," which imagines the charmed life of an overacheiving daughter she could have had with an ex. Of course, it's not too hard to hear Norlin's neuroses and insecurities playing out in these flights of fancy, but at least they offer a bit of psychological distance that's missing from slightly cringe-worthy fare like "25 Days" (Norlin as needy new girlfriend), the teenage sex diary "X Telling Me...," and "Parenting Never Ends," in which she asks her mother to take her back into the womb (Norlin clearly has parenting on the brain.) It's not that she lacks the verbal facility or pop sense to make this material worthwhile, but engaging with Hello Saferide means engaging with Norlin's personal psychodramas and emotional fatalism, and not every listener will feel comfortable or invested enough to do that. For those who are, Modern Short Stories offers a somewhat more mature, less giddy, but no less charmingly complicated version of the young woman who was introduced on Introducing, with couple of lovely Swedish folk-pop ballads ("Lund" and "Arjeplog") to boot.

Maia Hirasawa: Though, I'm Just Me review

Maia Hirasawa first gained notice as a backup singer for Annika Norlin's Hello Saferide, and fans of that band will certainly recognize a similar brand of sweet, intimate, folksy pop on the Japanese-Swedish singer/songwriter's humbly titled debut album. That said, Hirasawa does carve out a strong identity for herself here, one that's sometimes whimsical but not as overly cutesy as her former band (school children vocals notwithstanding); if anything more prone to overeager sentimentalism, but not so earnestly straightforward in her expression of it. Drawing musically from a palette of jazz and broadway-style piano ballads as well as folk and pop, she's generally inclined toward muted, wistful reflection, frequently undercutting even her bubblier, more optimistic seeming pop tunes with shades of lyrical uncertainty and ambiguity. That's especially true of the album's two biggest-sounding moments -- the bouncy full-bore pop single "And I Found This Boy" and the jazzy "Crackers," which features a brass section and a vocal duet with cabaret-pop starlet Miss Li. Some of the calmer numbers, like the string-laden waltz-ballad "Gothenburg" and the charming opener "Still June," with its intoxicatingly lush self-harmonies, offer glimmers of genuine hope, all the sweeter for being unanticipated. Throughout, Hirasawa displays an unusually versatile and expressive voice, reminiscent of Regina Spektor in its distinctive personality and emotional range, which is a large part of what makes Though, I'm Just Me so effortless and pleasurable. A quiet gem of a debut.

(and, for those who wonder if i ever write negative reviews...)

Miss Li: bio; Late Night Heartbroken Blues , God Put a Rainbow in the Sky, and Songs of a Rag Doll reviews

Miss Li's debut album introduced her scrappy, exuberant, modern take on classic cabaret-style jazz-pop. It's definitely not the sort of music you'd expect from a Swedish twenty-something, which makes this, at least initially, a very striking release, and it's undeniably a blast of energy, though there is something vaguely bland and tiresome about it in spite of its zesty exterior. The basic M.O. is established right off the bat, in the brief title track, with its handclaps, swingin' oompah rhythm, and brassily belted barstool tale of a night of boozing (the opening count-off turns out to be the number of beers she's drinking) leading to a desperate, meaningless one-night-stand, complete with spoken aside. From there on we get hot 'n' bothered torch ballads ("Give It to Me"), slinky shuffles ("Backstabber Lady"), jokey piano ditties ("I'm So Poor Won't You Lend Me Some Money"), and so forth; a survey of show tuney styles that doesn't come off as self-conscious pastiche so much as earnest if amateurish genre work. Fortunately - crucially - Li does have the pipes to pull it off, and perhaps even more importantly, the attitude: she attacks the material with a gusto that can't help but be a little infectious, clearly having too much fun to worry about whether she sounds corny. It's a perfectly apt approach for such unabashedly theatrical music, but it's a little hard to shake the notion that this is just a girl playing dress-up, and despite some seriously accomplished instrumental contributions from her bandmates, Li's rather hamfisted piano playing creates the sense that she's still in rehearsal.

Miss Li's second album appeared a mere six months after her first, and it's cut from similar cloth, with ten more songs of the mongrel musical theater pop that's this impish Swedish songbird's version of cabaret jazz. The most notable differences this time out are a couple of unconvincing stabs at political/social commentary -- the snarky "I'm Glad I'm Not a Proud American" and "Kings and Queens" (sample lyric: "Rich men in pretty suits aren't meant to make up all the rules/when all they really care about is guns and bombs and bigger boobs") -- and a few halfway decent ballads, which could almost be affecting if Li had a bit more vocal restraint. Her charm, such as it is, stems from her campy amateurism, which is infectious enough to sell hammy numbers like "I'm Sorry, He's Mine," an ode to stealing a friend's man that one could imagine Lily Allen sinking her snide little teeth into, and bouncy trifles like "All I Need Is You." But frankly, unlike the similarly precocious (and prolific) Nellie McKay, with whom she shares more than a few influences, Li doesn't really seem to have the originality, songwriting talent, or charismatic spark to make you care when she tries to get a bit more serious.

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