Wednesday, 25 October 2006 14:55
This month's Norse Code features an interview with Ephemera's Christine Sandtorv and reviews of Midair Condo, the Tidy Ups, The Knife, and Ampop. Come on in and survey all things Scandi.
I apologize profusely, dear readers. This column has been dormant for 7 months, and that certainly wasn't planned. It's not that there wasn't plenty of music deserving of coverage. No, it's actually the OPPOSITE problem that occurred-there was too MUCH music to write about. What happened in 2006 was literally an explosion of interest in the Scandinavian music scene. Every major magazine got in on the action, and online sites such as Pitchfork and aversion.com took note of countless new artists from the region. What once was an exciting little secret for some of us suddenly became the focus of intense scrutiny in both the U.K. and here in the states. So I guess I'm trying to say I got a little overwhelmed. With piles of CDs to write about and not near enough time, I became disorganized and a little freaked. But after reorienting myself and getting refocused, I am back at Scandi Central to do my sacred duty. And that's to continue shedding light on the diverse, exciting, brilliant music being made in the cool realm of northern Europe. So please accept my apology for the delay, and let's just dive right into some recent Scandi action, ‘kay?
Among the biggest success stories in 2006 has been The Knife, a Swedish brother-sister act who create an utterly mesmerizing blend of rhythmic synth-pop and eerie, creatively distorted vocals. Their third album (but first U.S. release), Silent Shout, is well-named; it might render you speechless with its compelling mixture of the familiar and the weird, but artistically, it does indeed shout out loud. The cover and the sleeve are black or dark blue, giving an aura of unsettling darkness to the presentation, and you'll strain to read the lyrics. You won't generally hear them that well, either, since Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson (she does most of the singing) employ pitch shifting and other vocal-altering devices to create an often bizarre and not-quite-human sound. The peppy synth-pop of the title track lures you in, then the weird vocals blindside you and let you know this is not your father's new wave music. Or your mother's, your older brother's, etc. Maybe your weird cousin's. On songs like "The Captain," which features a long, moody instrumental intro, and the ominously titled "We Share Our Mothers' Health," the music throbs with energetic life, but the vocals are more like The Residents than any typical Swedish pop outfit. Something wicked this way comes, is the general vibe here, and yet you want it to, because you're curious to follow this amazing music wherever it plans to take you. One of the most memorable songs is "No No No," a vaguely oriental-sounding composition with a minimal ascending keyboard melody that sets up a high-pitched, spooky female voice that seems to wail from another dimension. More appealing for the novice will be the following two tracks, "Marble House" and "Like a Pen," which are relatively normal sounding compared to the sonic atmosphere elsewhere. The former, however, does boast a grabby percussion element that sounds like some little creature scurrying in the darkness; the latter takes a similar sound and makes it more like tap dancing. On both, there are appealing vocals and a rhythm you can sink your teeth into-those two tracks also exceed five minutes in length. Dreijer takes the male lead on "From Off to On," a lovely bit of contemporary electronica-but it's distortion city here; hard to say if it's his sister joining in for those strange, tight harmonies, or more pitch-shifting experiments. "We cannot wait much longer," says our spooked musical host. "We want happiness...we want control of our bodies." By any measure, this is original modern pop music, and it helps explain why The Knife were suddenly so in demand that they were able to launch their first U.S. tour this year. Creepy, unsettling, emotionally stirring and beautifully recorded, Silent Shout is easily one of the most distinctive recordings to emerge from Sweden this year. OR: 9. OM: 3.5. CSC
Knife is on tour in the U.S.:
11.01.06 New York, NY - Webster Hall
11.03.06 San Francisco, CA - Mezzanine
11.04.06 Los Angeles, CA - El Rey Theater
(In case you've forgotten what those codes mean, "OR" is the overall rating; "OM" is the "Otherness Measure," or degree of cultural distinctiveness on a scale of 1 to 5, and "CSC" means "Certified Scandinavian Classic").
Okay, I know you're sick of hearing groups compared to Radiohead. And frankly, I'm sick of groups that sound a little like Radiohead but aren't nearly as good. But comparisons are inevitable in this reviewing racket, and that's not always a bad thing. Take Iceland's Ampop. They do sound just a little like Radiohead, and other epic Brit-pop groups like Coldplay and Muse. But they're damn good, and they are different enough to deserve recognition for their own thing. Which is essentially, melodic, soaring, classic pop/rock delivered via the sweet, gently melancholy vocals of singer Birgir Hilmarsson ("Biggi," who also plays guitar) and shot through with Icelandic cool. You can't fake authentic emotion, and there are countless moments on Ampop's new record My Delusions where the vocals are so pure, so achingly sincere, that it's like a close friend telling you about their romantic pangs or sorrows. And the music is performed with incredible clarity and finesse, so that every little detail makes its way from your ears to your heart. This trio have the goods, in spades. Kjartan F. Olafsson (billed as "Kjartan") plays the keyboards and co-wrote everything here with Biggi; Jon Geir is the drummer. All three musicians play it like they mean it, every step of the way; there's something fresh and lovely here that is almost aromatic in its purity. There's "Eternal Bliss," which features a rapid waltz tempo, lulling background harmonies (a band trademark) and an uncommonly restrained lead vocal for this kind of epic pop. A subtle touch of distortion adds to the potent impact. The title track is a bit of a Beatle-ish charmer that only the deaf could resist. "How long does it take to land this plane?/This flight is making me afraid..." sings Biggi, before adding "I might be wrong but I feel/I've much to prove." Ampop seem to be aware of one secret of great pop music-the art of aesthetic vagueness. It creates a deeper impact on songs like this that works on a nearly subliminal level. An even better example is "Precious," which has no obvious inspiration in Tolkien, but is lyrically so vague that you can interpret it any way you want. "I can't stand it/I can't be without it/It's the only thing I want/It's the only thing I need," our Icelandic friend implores with great vulnerability. How cool that he never tells us what IT is, so we can use our imagination! And cooler still that the song is beautiful. Other great tracks include the gorgeous ballad "Clown" and the melancholy weeper "Youth," in which clean acoustic guitar picking and deeply atmospheric electric tones combine with the emotive vocal to render a sense of palpable sorrow about the loss of innocence and the angst of getting older. Stylistically, this is Bends-era Radiohead, and it's about as good as any tune on that record, in fact. "Distance" is another song that should appeal to Radiohead fans, although the beautiful humming in the background is somewhat unique to this group and is about as nice a stylistic touch as I've heard lately. And Biggi's warm and lovely voice shines with just minimal piano, although anytime a thicker groove kicks in, his voice ramps up in power also, without losing its intimate quality. The album ends with one of its best songs, "3 Hours of Daylight," which should be a shoo-in for some creative mix CD about the ups and downs of life in Iceland or Scandinavia proper. "Three hours of daylight/Makes you want to stay inside/New morning doesn't welcome you/The darkness surrounds you," sings Biggi with utter conviction, letting the emotion slowly simmer/shimmer. The gorgeous harmonies knock you out, and the soaring, repeated chorus of "We will be fine/Cause soon it will shine..." is simply breathtaking. This is the kind of song where you think, why is Band X on top of the charts for similar material, but the superior grace and tastefulness of Ampop is mostly confined in this country to their MySpace circle? Powerful, immaculately produced and emotionally stirring, My Delusions is one of the best albums to come out of Iceland this year. Ampop are well worth your time if you like melodic, melancholy indie pop, so go on over to their MySpace site and learn more. www.myspace.com/ampopband OR: 8. OM: 2.5.
My interview this month is with Christine Sandtorv from Norway's girl pop trio Ephemera. This was supposed to appear back in spring, when Christine's debut solo album First Last Dance was released in her homeland, but since the album hasn't been released in the U.S. yet, I guess this'll still be fresh info for most of you. It's no secret in my circles that I'm a huge Ephemera fan; in fact, I can say with conviction that they are probably the finest female pop band on the planet. The prospect of a solo recording from their most musically accomplished member was simultaneously worrisome and intriguing...the former, because I feared it might mean Ephemera's future could be in doubt; the latter, because it would naturally be fascinating to see what Sandtorv would sound like outside the tight harmonies and blue diamond aesthetic of her primary band. I certainly needn't have worried; Ephemera have simply been on an extended break, as Inger Lise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen both got pregnant at about the same time, and Sandtorv herself got married this past summer. Love and domestic bliss have clearly come to these Norwegian lasses; time will tell what effect that has on their music. Meanwhile, First Last Dance is a positive delight, and shows that Sandtorv is perfectly capable of making exceptional music on her own. The ten-song platter is no radical departure; it's the same effervescent blend of acoustic pop, light electronica and sweet, purring vocals that Ephemera is known for. And again, the disc was co-produced by the uncannily brilliant Yngve Saetre. What's different is simply that there's more of Ms. Sandtorv on this outing; she wrote everything and plays almost all the guitars, as well as keyboards on three songs. Contributions are made by Thomas Dahl on slide guitar, Per Amund Solberg on bass, Tarjei Strom on drums and Magnet's Even Johansen on the vocal duet "Ten Out of Ten." That particular song, by the way, is a stunner-a luminous, romantic ode to summer rapture with the one you adore. The waltz tempo, breathy vocals and upbeat chorus ("Ten out of ten/You are ten out of ten/You fill me with bliss") instantly stick in your head, and make you want to start singing along. Throughout, Sandtorv and her producer Mr. Saetre add little flourishes to the tunes to give them added warmth and musical richness: subtle strings on "Four-Leaf Clover," "Easy to Fool" and a few others; light, glistening keyboards on the well-crafted song "Hum," which has an ascending chord progression that really gets under your skin; and horns on "But Her" and "Away With It." There's not a weak track on the disc, but of special note is the stunningly beautiful "All the Things We Never Talk About," which is a great example of Sandtorv's songwriting gifts. Her gentle guitar picking blends with lovely orchestration and deft percussion to give her sweet voice the perfect landscape to glide across. And glide it does, singing lyrics so effortless and breezy, you marvel at the organic purity of it all. Sandtorv has an amazing knack for taking conversational-style phrases and turning them into lyrics that work perfectly in her songs. "It's a new world record, still I'm not impressed/It's this chance of a lifetime, still I couldn't care less," she sings, before giving the song's title its due. What a gem of a composition! "But Her" and the wistfully yearning "Collide" are also stellar numbers, the latter a showcase of musical tenderness and vulnerability that Sandtorv renders with exquisite grace. Though the album is on the short side (34 minutes), and doesn't really boast any rockers, it's a pretty effortless listen overall. Sandtorv's way with a melody and the soothing charms of her voice are undiminished, and it's a wonderful pleasure to have an entire album demonstrating her vast creative gifts. OR: 8. OM: 2.
Since trans-Atlantic phone calls are not included in my budget, conducting my interview with Christine Sandtorv by email was the only sensible way to proceed. Following are the results:
KR: What led to you writing and recording a solo album? And were the songs you wrote originally intended for Ephemera?
CS: It just turned out that way. In the beginning I just made new songs because I felt like writing. I hadn't exactly made up my mind about recording or releasing them. I knew they would not be "Ephemera songs" and maybe I had a tiny dream of releasing a solo album. So after a while I started to record them in my little home studio. Only one of the songs was originally made for Ephemera, but it didn't fit on our last album I think (Monolove), so we never recorded it.
KR: Have the other girls been supportive of this record? Are they working on material too?
CS: Yes, they've been very supportive. To be honest I didn't want to hear their opinions during the recording, so they didn't hear any of the songs until they were all recorded. Maybe I was afraid it would sound too much like Ephemera if they had an influence. But they have heard the album now, and they told me they love it.
KR: What felt different about making this record than the way you work with Ephemera? Was it a big change not to have the harmonies of the other girls on these songs?
CS: This time I never went to rehearsal and played my new song for someone. I just played it once again for myself, or maybe my boyfriend. So I never got that feedback, as I am used to from Ephemera. I had to believe in my own decisions. I knew these songs were never meant for Ephemera. So during the writing process, I was aware that I couldn't just fill in with the other girls' voices to create harmonies. But maybe I could replace them with a tuba or a violin? ( I hope they don't kill me for comparing them with just an instrument!)
KR: Are people worried that Ephemera has broken up? What responses are you getting from fans in Norway about your album?
CS: People are asking me about what will happen to Ephemera, now that the others had babies, and I'm releasing a solo album. But I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. I think we'll meet again in our rehearsal room soon. We are building a studio there. I'm sure we are going to kill some time there during the summer and autumn.
KR: Yngve Saetre has produced this recording again. Can you summarize what it's like to work with him? He strikes me as a brilliant and intuitive producer who understands your aesthetic perfectly.
CS: Yes, I have worked with Yngve again. But I've also been more involved in the producing myself this time. I recorded all the songs in my tiny home studio, Home Sweet Home Recordings, on the attic in our old wooden house. I recorded all the guitars, vocals and some keys as well. Then I took it over to Duper Studio, where we recorded drums, bass, some authentic piano, strings and brass. I also did some of the vocal takes there. Yngve is a really good man. We cooperate really good together, and totally understand each other. He is so relaxed, and really cares about the real music, not just about "making a hit," like I feel a lot of other producers focus too much on.
KR: The title track of your album is a duet with Even Johansen of Magnet, who is also a Bergen resident. I interviewed him recently and it was touching to hear him talk about the cooperative atmosphere between musicians in Bergen. Do you think music is somehow more sincere and special when musicians who like and respect each other work together? And does the coummunal spirit in Bergen influence your creativity?
CS: I think it's really inspiring that there are so many good musicians in Bergen. And a lot of them are really nice people, as well. I was very happy when Even told me he'd like to sing on the song "Ten Out of Ten," and I think he did a fantastic job. I sent him a letter with the song on a CD, and he recorded it in his home studio on the island Askøy, where he lives (right outside Bergen).
KR: You sang several terrific songs with the Ralph Myerz and Jack Herren band. I particularly like "L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K.," on their last album. What was it like recording with them? That sort of dancey pop is so different from Ephemera's music; would you like to do more things in that vein?
CS: I have known "Ralphene" for quite a long time now. We actually share rehearsal room/studio with them in Industrihuset in Bergen. It was really fun singing with them. I also wrote the melody and some of the lyrics on that song, and I sang with them on some other old tracks ("Think Twice"), as well as some that will appear on their new album. I love working with them, they are such great boys.
KR: When you are writing a song, do you tend to have the lyrics first, and then write music? Or do both come to you at the same time? Can you share the experience of writing a certain song on this album, like what inspired it or how easily it came together?
CS: Most often, both music and lyrics come to me at the same time. At least the first verse, or the refrain or a line, and then I have to work to make it to a whole song. I remember writing the song "Ten Out of Ten." It was such a beautiful day in Bergen, I was a bit in love, and I sat down writing and playing. And it isn't that often that I manage to make a song when I'm feeling that way. It seems easier when I'm a bit sad, or have a lot on my mind. Unfortunately, it isn't often that it's nice and sunny weather in Bergen, either.
KR: Will it be difficult for you to perform as a solo artist after so much time with Ephemera? Who would be playing in your band for live shows?
CS: To be honest I don't really know. And I am a bit nervous, I can tell. But hopefully it will be okay. I'm going to have "the first last dance band" with me on live shows. (Tarjei, drums, Thomas, Guitar and some keys?, and I will use a bass player from Bergen, Andres Bitustøyl. Per Amund Solberg is busy releasing an album with Number Seven Deli.
KR: Finally, what are your plans when this record is released? How much will you tour? And how long do you think it will be until Ephemera records again?
CS: I'm not really sure. I know we are going to play some gigs, and maybe some festivals. And hopefully the album will be released in some other countries as well. I'm working on it. But since I'm doing it all by myself (having my own label, making artwork and so on), I cannot do everything at the same time. So I'll just see what will happen...
There are a lot of weird groups in Scandinavia, but not that many truly weird all-female bands. In my book, of course, "weird" is a compliment, so when I tell you that Midair Condo is probably the weirdest female band from Sweden that I've come across, it means I like them. Very much. Their website (www.midaircondo.com) says that the band "is a constellation who explores beat, sound, voice, improvisation in an audio-visual environment." Sure, and I like cool sounds from Scandinavia. In other words, yes, that description is a bare start, but it doesn't really tell the listener very much. The Gothenburg trio's first album, Shopping for Images, absolutely defies formula. The band members-Lisa Nordström, voice, computer, etc. (that's what it says!); Lisen Rylander, saxophones, voice, computer, etc.; and Malin Dahlstrom, voice, computer, etc.-apparently aren't content to merely make strange and haunting electro-pop music. Instead, they dress up mostly instrumental pieces with sweet, whispery vocals that never add up to a verse or chorus, and create tension by juxtaposing often machine-like mechanized sounds with beautiful tones from a sax, piano or in the case of "Perfect Spot"-one of the album's highlights, wind chimes. When was the last time you heard a song that began with wind chimes? That flurry of sound is then joined by a throbbing bass and a squelchy synth, luring you into a nice ambient trance. But then...good lord...a vocal comes in that seems to be from an entirely different song. It's peppy and jazz-tinged, singing fairly normal lyrics. "I will fill your heart with love/I will find the perfect spot in you," sings our Nordic chanteuse. You found the spot, girls, lemme tell you. This particular piece is one of the few that rocks out a little, and when harmonies kick in to adorn the main vocal near the end, the album reaches a peak of musical ecstasy, if kinda mind-warping. Another amazing track is "Lo-Fi Love," which clocks at almost eight minutes. It begins with abrasive, distorted guitars or synth (hard to tell), with a fairly insistent electronic pulse trying to push through the surrounding sonic squall. Unexpectedly, the piece dissolves into a bit of soft, soothing ambience with a distinctive four-note sequence that repeats over and over on some unknown instrument. Then a female voice starts repeating the phrase "I am here" very sweetly. I wrote down "oddly compelling" when I was listening to this song. Then I noticed I'd written that observation for several other songs, too, like "Could You Please Stop," on which a striking bass line snakes through an Eno-esque synth background while again, a soft female voice repeats the title phrase, followed by "You distract me." Um, yeah. I distract you? It's the other way around, Lisa, Lisen and Malin. "Serenade" is another almost-normal piece, utilizing neo-classical piano and flute as a prelude to an honest-to-God set of lyrics. On "Coffeeshop," a looped background dialogue segment is joined by machine-like sounds and contrapuntal foreground voices with the apparent intent to mess with your mind. This segues unnoticeably into "Sorry, on which sparse, ominous bass underscores a Bjork-like voice singing "Did you hear me say/I'm sorry?" Aw, nothing to be sorry about, girls. Long as you know this here sonic frippery won't be topping the charts anytime soon. Even though "Although I Heard" is nicely reminiscent of Brian Eno (until the voice enters halfway through) and even though "Faces" and "I'll Be Waiting" make wonderful use of horns and evocative keyboard thingies to map out a sound that could almost be called "ambient jazz-tronica." Complete with sleepy vocals. Yep, Midair Condo have made some curious and, uh, "oddly compelling" aesthetic choices on this album. God bless ‘em for marching to the blip of a different programmer. Shopping For Images is weird, wild and wonderful. OR: 8. OM: 4.
"Here they come/Skippin' down the street/They give you smiles and sunshine/And make you hit REPEAT/ Hey, hey they're the Tidy Ups!" I don't know what made me think of The Monkees as I sat down to review this Swedish girl group's 4-song EP Dizzy Heights (Music is My Girlfriend Recordings); maybe it was just the eager-to-please quality and overt poppiness of the platter. Dizzy Heights is brisk, upbeat and melodic, and wastes no time at all trying to make you feel good. Band members Maria Stäck, Jenny Westerlund, Olov Antonsson, Emma Andersson and Matilda Norberg aren't doing anything particularly original, but no matter-this is sweet, tuneful twee (or should that be twee tunefulness?) on display. The catchy horns and shy but alluring female vocals seduce you quickly on the title track. Little adornments like a bit of tap-dancing (or something that sounds like it) on "Lack of Nourishment" and the strings on "Death to the Tidy Ups" (NO, girls, NO!) add interest to the sometimes hurried arrangements. The best song is probably "Beauvais," on which some ear-pleasing guitar, crisp percussion and candy-coated vocals make for a fetching tune not too far from Acid House Kings territory. Everything is short, fast and sweet, but I'd sorta like to hear what this band could do over the course of a full-length. The energy is clearly there; now they just need to slow down and stretch out. OR: 7. OM: 1.
That's it for this edition, fellow Scandi-lovers. Tune in next month, when I won't say anything at all about Magga Stina, but I just might say something about Icelandic chanteuse Hafdis Huld and some other cool artists...
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