Sound Bites

Album review: Agnes Obel gets listeners hooked

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 1, 2013 

Readers of this column know my fondness for airy Nordic pop - a zephyr that caresses and clears the mind.

It could be Singapore's equatorial heat, exacerbated by festering haze, which makes one long for simpatico harmonies of Norway's Kings Of Convenience, the lonesome reflection of Sweden's Jose Gonzalez, or the rollicking folk- rock of Iceland's Of Monsters And Men and Denmark's The Kissaway Trail.

You marvel at how Sweden - population about 9.5 million - could produce such talents as diverse as electronic wizards The Knife, goth-pop princess Lykke Li and experimental recluse Stina Nordenstam.

Yet, there's always an intelligent chill at the heart of it all - the melodies pop, but they also make you question whether everything is hunky-dory.

The latest addition to the Scandinavian brigade is Copenhagen folk-pop trio Boho Dancer, who are named after the song Boho Dance from Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975).

Their music isn't original, but it's a surprisingly rich confluence of Appalachian folk, pub-rock hoedown and even femme balladeering.

Their debut album Gemini, available on iTunes, is a fandango of dual opposites.

Their songs can be as rousing as, say, Mumford & Sons, but you may not want to swig a beer after you know what they are about.

At the core is the charismatic Ida Wenoe, the latest in a line of countrified Swedish chanteuses: the Soderberg sisters of First Aid Kit and Cardigans' Nina Persson.

Her voice, girlish yet sinewy, wraps each lyric as if it's her last breath, even as the music remains incredibly upbeat.

Fictional Reasons has an instant hook, buoyed on a chorus of innocent "aahs" and spiffy drumming, but the words cut: "But I'd rather be a lost case than stay with you."

Even when nature beckons (or is it a lover?), Wenoe's aware of the elements. Like Rain, with its nimble braiding of violins, viola and percussion brushes, seduces. A male vocal, provided by Kaspar Kaae, dances around her.

She's evolving right in front of you. Slept On A Silver Platter starts on a staccato stomp, before blooming into a hillbilly shuffle. Wenoe stretches like a lissome diva over a sea of white noise and thunderous drums.

Her voice, bluesy as Robert Plant's, is no longer a child's. Or a woman's, for that matter.

In Epicene, a swamp-folk elegy, she has become a shape-shifter, a "man who drank himself/to the grave" but "They've forgotten my name".

By the time the listener reaches the last track, the wonderfully creepy piano dirge Waiting On A Summer (Never To Come) - the title is another allusion to the Mitchell album - all bets are off.

"I want to ride with the wind I want to take off my skin," she enunciates each syllable, before shredding it apart, already moulting herself.


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Alternative rock

THE ARGUMENT

Grant Hart

Domino

****

Grant Hart, co-founder of influential American hardcore rockers Husker Du, isn't as widely known as his ex-band mate Bob Mould.

That suits him just fine, as he quietly releases frustratingly brilliant albums as part of his post-Husker Du band Nova Mob as well as on his own.

The Argument, his fourth solo outing, is another bafflingly proud entry in an illustrious discography - it's his account of the Fall of Man via his reading of English poet John Milton's Paradise Lost and William S. Burroughs' unpublished manuscript, Lost Paradise.

Sonically, Hart ranges freely from the jangly fuzz of Letting Me Out to the siren-fuelled War In Heaven.

It's a head-scratcher in parts, but you're hooked nonetheless.


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Indie pop

SAN CISCO

San Cisco

RCA Records/Sony

*** 1/2

From Fremantle, Australia, come a sparkly indie-pop foursome. San Cisco - apparently no relation to the city of San Francisco - sound so breezy and jangly, they might well be the Antipodean cousins to Ireland's equally effervescent The Thrills.

The song Fred Astaire rings with ebullient guitars, even if the sentiments are actually sadder than they appear.

Singalongs such as Awkward and No Friends are wonderfully gauche yet terribly infectious. Retro geekness seldom sounds so ruddy.


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Hip-hop

MAGNA CARTA...HOLY GRAIL

Jay Z

Roc Nation

***

Itemise your qualms about being rich - that's the theme of the bombastically average Magna Carta... Holy Grail, with Jay Z having second thoughts about fame and wealth - but not really.

With pal Justin Timberlake in tow, he complains in the opener Holy Grail about the paparazzi and dives into an embarrassingly run of Smells Like Teenage Spirit: "And we're all just entertainers/And we're stupid and contagious."

You turn to R&B rising star Frank Ocean for emotional nuance in Oceans, its plaintive horns and a stark hip-hop beat making you wonder where Jay Z has gone to.


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Pop

STARS DANCE

Selena Gomez

Hollywood Records

** 1/2

First, it's her on-off dalliance with Justin Bieber, and then the naughty-girl turn in Harmony Korine's movie Spring Breakers.

Now, the ex-Disney princess is all grown up in her solo debut, Stars Dance. The 21-year-old's living it up on Birthday, a shot of Skrillex-esque sub-bass drops mixed with suggestive girlish squeals that's so darned catchy, parents should worry.

Her voice, less tinny than J. Lo's, isn't drowned out by busy beats that mimic everything from disco to techno to synth-pop, but they never truly coalesce into anything memorable.

kaichai@sph.com.sg


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Album of the weekINDIE FOLK/POPGEMINI Boho Dancer NMS/VME

****