Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CITIZEN DICK: Invasion of the Swedish Chanteuses – Taken By Trees, Anna Ternheim, and Elin Palmer

Invasion of the Swedish Chanteuses – Taken By Trees, Anna Ternheim, and Elin Palmer – Album Reviews
September 3rd, 2009 by justin | Print
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Every January, the sitting American president comes before the American people and their duly elected legislative representatives and gives a report about the State of the Union. A combination of constitutional requirement, national tradition, and political posturing, these moments also provide us with a reliable annual marker for how things are going. Say what you will about the institution itself or the various men who have held it, but the regular meeting of the chief executive with the mass public’s representatives (and, through technology, indirectly with the people themselves) closes the democratic loop in an important and laudable way.

Unfortunately, we as indie rock writers are not so deliberate in the reports we make to you, our public, at least not when it comes to surveying the state of the union of Swedish pop. And this indictment is especially damning when we consider our failure to examine the progress being made in that most delightful of all sub-genres: the Swedish pop chanteuse.

So, as a way to make amends on behalf of all music writers everywhere AND take advantage of the fact that three particularly great albums have release dates this summer/fall within a short time of one another, I present to you the Citizen Dick First Annual (and likely Only Annual) State of Swedish Female Solo Pop report.

(Note: For those political science nerds out there, yes I am aware that new incumbent presidents actual make their speech in February, that it is in such a situation not a State of the Union but something different, and that the current traditions as we know them have only persisted since the early years of FDR’s presidency – but working all that into my intro, beyond just in this parenthetical aside, would’ve totally killed my hook.)

Thus, today you will be treated to a trio of micro-treatises on three excellent new albums out by Taken by Trees, Anna Ternheim, and Elin Palmer. All three lovely ladies are Swedish and all do the singer-songwriter thing, but listening to them one after another you get a great idea of the nuance (hopefully Michael Steele is reading this post) that differentiates each.

Of the three subjects of this post, readers will almost certainly be most familiar with Taken By Trees, the nom de plume (or whatever nom you’d have as a musician) for Victoria Bergsman. Most of you likely first learned of Bergsman when she performed the duet on “Young Folks” on the Peter, Bjorn, and John Writer’s Block album in 2007 (though I believe the single was released in 2006). I know that’s where I first became utterly taken with her gentle, sorrowful yet enticing vocals. It turns out I’d had an album or two by The Concretes already in my possession (including 2006’s wonderful In Colour), but it wasn’t until googling her name after being so taken with her performance on Writer’s Block that I made the connection between the two. About the time I was beginning my reintroduction to her oeuvre, Bergsman made the decision to move forward to a new phase, leaving The Concretes and going solo.

After spending much of her early post-Concretes time being touted in Europe and North America, during which she released her first solo album, Bergsman made a surprising and either courageous or silly decision to go to Pakistan, soak up the social and artistic vibes, and record her second album.

East of Eden wastes no time showing this South Asian influence, with opening track “To Lose Someone” beginning with instrumentals that would not be out of place as the soundtrack to the opening credits of some post-9/11 Homeland Security procedural program. Eventually, Bergsman soothing vocals come in, singing a song that lyrically and, at least with respect to her contribution to the song, would not have been out of place on her more mainstream Swedish pop debut album, 2007’s Open Field.

Throughout the rest of the album, some songs have more Pakistani influence than others. For example, “Anna” is a mostly straight-forward track, while the album’s lead single, “Watch the Waves,” brings in a moderate local influence on the rhythm. Indeed, other than in patches, the album never seems to provide a true synthesis between Scandinavian pop and South Asian folk music, but rather seems to be a stripped-down version of the former with some over and under-dubs of the latter. Still, the sound works and, artistically speaking, marks a lot riskier production decision by Bergsman and her team than the obvious choice – another Bjorn Yttling-produced album of confection and semi-twee gloss.

Don’t get me wrong – when it comes to that style, few folks in the world rival Yttling’s chops in the studio and few voices work with the genre as well as Bergsman’s does. But she has the rest of her career to produce those albums and the fact that she chose to make this more ambitious project says a lot about her goals and instincts. I think we’ll be seeing a lot from Bergsman over the years to come and all of it will be interesting, even when she returns to the simple pop formula that helped to make her name and get our attention in the first place.

East of Eden will be released by Rough Trade Records on September 7th.

Of the three albums under review here, Anna Ternheim’s Leaving on a Mayday is the most straightforward and traditional, perhaps because unlike Bergsman, Ternheim did make the studio call to Bjorn Yttling. There are also some significant 90s chick adult-alternative cues, with Ternheim sounding reminiscent of Dido on several tracks (”What Have I Done,” “Let It Rain,” and “Terrified”) and Jewel on at least one other (”Damaged Ones”).

Like those previous generation references, Ternheim’s efforts are vocals-centric, and while each track has the requisite drum machine and strings work, both are consistently muted, with her voice always prized above the minimalistic accompaniment. Such an approach is not completely unusual with female singer-songwriters, but one really starts to recognize Ternheim’s confidence and swagger when you consider who it is playing along on these tracks that are being muted: occasional drummers like Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and renowned Swedish jazz drummer Fredrik Rundqvist, legendary session axe man Matt Sweeney, and others.

Much of Leaving On A Monday sounds like it all belongs on the same record, but on some particularly special tracks there are developments that take things to a unique level. The best example of this is “Summer Rain,” which at times reminds me (just a little bit) of Jimmy Buffett and a lot of Brent Knopf of Menomena’s new solo project under the name Ramona Falls. Considering Ramona Falls album, Intuit, is the yet unchallenged leader in my own personal race for Best Album of 2009, you won’t be surprised when I saw I wish I heard more tracks like “Summer Rain,” and less that remind me of post-break up mix tapes my college freshman year girlfriend would make me in 1996-1997. However, it must be noted, those tracks were on those tapes for a reason, which is why Anna Ternheim’s new album strikes me as a very good one indeed.

Anna Ternheim’s Leaving On A Mayday was released by Verve Forecast on August 11th. If you want to sample the goods before committing to a purchase, a few of the album’s tracks are streaming on Ternheim’s myspace page, which you can access here.

Elin Palmer’s debut solo effort, Postcard, provides considerably more depth than the previous albums and may well be the best of the lot. An accomplished instrumentalist, Palmer is best known for bringing string and accordion work to other musician’s projects, including 16 Horsepower and M. Ward. On Postcard, Palmer still brings those instruments to the recording studio, but has her first opportunity to cultivate and express her own sound.

That sound is a dark one, what you might expect if Tracyanne Campbell became the live-in lover of David Eugene Edwards – more focus on romance than fire and brimstone, but still a fearfulness and anxiety to the record that the eclectic and old world selection of instruments only reinforces. There is a restrained desperation on this album that – especially on a track like “Paint” – makes me think of Trent Reznor’s unknown gypsy ancestry, while Waves is more reminiscent of Wovenhand-era Edwards.

The distance and dissonance between the singer and the listener only increases on the Swedish tracks (”Stora Stovlar” and “Duvardat”), and the final effect is much like a murky dream sequence where the dreamer is finding his way down cloudy passages, unsure of what is ahead and unable to go back, drawn by an enchanting if harrowing songstress that one hopes is merely sad and not the bearer of some straight Odysseus and the Sirens shit. Besides, if we were to stuff our ears with beeswax like Big O’s men did, we wouldn’t be able to hear this wonderful album.

Elin Palmer’s Postcard will be released on October 9th. In the meantime, check out her myspace page, where several tracks are streaming, here. Also be sure to hit up this fantastic study of her courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Independent (Palmer now makes her home in Denver).

Taken by Trees – Watch the Waves

Anna Ternheim – What Have I Done

Anna Ternheim – What Have I Done (El Perro Del Mar remix)

Elin Palmer – Postcard

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