Saturday, March 14, 2009

“Swedish Smorgasbord”

Fever Ray (Fever Ray) /Hardships! (Jenny Wilson) (2009)

Though it is a Sri-Lankan born revisionist who currently jangles the keys of popular music, there can be no doubt which country is generating the most buzz to keep pace with her; Sweden. While the UK posse (Duffy, Adele and the prodigious Laura Marling) has greater visibility, the Swedes have permeated North American dance- floors with a swathe of bonafide hits. Sure, you probably can’t spell or pronounce any of their last names but their infectious beats are what you’re currently listening to without realizing it. There’s Robyn, the art-pop boss whose most recent gem, the self-titled Robyn shows just how much Pink has run out of ideas…and that album was originally released three years ago. Lykke Li’s debut last year showed spurts of promise with great dance tracks like Dance, Dance, Dance and I’m Good, I’m Gone.

No such cache could be complete however without mention of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Jenny Wilson. Both women share more than just the same year of birth but Wilson was famously the only other act signed to Andersson’s label, Rabid Records. Andersson is more popularly known as one-half of The Knife, the critically acclaimed duo she formed with her brother ten years ago. Their 2006 album Silent Shout featured prominently on many year-end lists, with critics marveling that not since the emergence of Bjork in the mid-nineties had non-American electronic music been presented so innovatively.

Her solo debut, Fever Ray starts off harmlessly enough with If I Had a Heart but as that track fades away we come upon the album’s highlight, When I Grow Up. Here Andersson’s beats are sparer than usual but a wicked dancehall groove is dropped midway and her vocals soar above the din while remaining emotionally unattached. There’s lyrical poison here but Karin understands that in music less is more even if you’re telling tales. Seven and Triangle Walks are intangibles that somehow work but by time she reaches to Concrete Walls, the album has already been enveloped into a sense of Knife déjà-vu. Andersson retreads into her safety zone and only I’m Not Done shows any real need to tinker with a sound that has been hers to dispense. This is understandable in most cases as record labels do tend to wean new or exotic acts slowly and as carefully structured as they can. But Andersson is, after all, releasing Fever Ray on her own label and, pardon my slight frustration, but it’s widely known among their fan base that there will be no new Knife material until 2010.

Andersson’s glacial pop beats are a canvass from which she can explore such varied ideas as homoerotic longing (Pass This On) and subtle swipes at Bjork (We Share Our Mother’s Health) but that’s when she’s one-half of The Knife. What eventually comes to differentiate her role in The Knife and as Fever Ray is personality. Her identity dominates totally the Fever Ray project and Karin falls slightly into the trap of back-story; thinking that somehow her fans need re-introduction to her life and music career. That scope narrows the fun she could have had on this solo project, which is admittedly admirable but surely could have skimmed the top off its seriousness to let its guard down a bit. Just like TV on the Radio’s much hyped Dear Science last year, the album is a tad pedantic and sacrifices fun for statement too much for my liking.

Whereas Andersson remains stoically in character, Wilson isn’t able to sit still for too long. She throws in just about everything to enliven her tracks, including jazzy textures and carefully-aligned multiple vocal work—the latter which supremely lifts the closing minutes of We Had Everything. It is fair to say that she’s been leading the Swedish avant-garde movement and look no further than Strings of Grass, a track that unfurls her many stylistic tricks without missing a beat, to prove such a point.

The first three tracks on Hardships! alone virtually guarantee Wilson her retainer fee however. The Path sounds like a cross between retro white pop and early-Bjork, thus making it one of the best songs the year has revealed so far. Like a Fading Rainbow is a pas de deux that she alone inhabits. Along with Clattering Hooves she sounds eerily similar to Camille’s animated expressions on Music Hole last year. On the shrilly Pass Me the Salt and Only Here for One Night, she recalls the playful vibe of Cansei de Ser Sexy and Roisin Murphy, which speaks volumes for her given that Wilson’s voice never registers as aggressively. Hardships! establishes itself as a moderately progressive opus due to the smooth juxtaposition of the electronic beats and associative rhythms. Anchor Made of Sand typifies this transition and if you don’t believe me then listen to her debut and hear the slight moments of disconnect that mar otherwise engaging tracks. The Wooden Chair is a huge jam that benefits from her new-found restraint. Wilson now has the ability to harness her delivery more coherently and that’s the most strikingly thing on Hardships!

Even though there’s nothing as masterful as Let My Shoes Lead Me Forward--a track from her debut that perhaps Lilly Allen should’ve heard before releasing the ridiculous It’s Not You, It’s Me mid-February—her vocal nuances are less abstract thus easier to follow. I’m glad Wilson has continued to plug away at her oeuvre so much so that she’s grown comfortable in strengthening her songs. The only issue with the album, if I had to be picky, is that while she has expanded her song length, Wilson hasn’t unearthed much about her own inner-workings. If Andersson is guilty of flooding listeners with her back-story then Wilson presents hardly any at all. The tracks where we glean something of her life tend to be the most fascinating here as her fans are well weaned on her sprite tales by now. In a sense she’s continuing a tale rather than breaking away to commence a newer one.

Both women owe a huge debt to Robyn, in whose path they are following. The transformation from Swedish dance star to global pop phenomenal isn’t one that easily comes without years of struggling to raise personality and profile. Andersson sports a mask on the rare occasion she is publicized or interviewed and the Fever Ray cover is in line with this caricature. Wilson dons a beret and arms herself with a gun, as if readying for what is to come on her album cover. If Annie ever gets to re-release Don’t Stop this year then I suspect a turf war with the lasses emerging from Norway may be next.
Fever Ray: 7.5/10 Hardships!: 8.25/10