Welcome to the 11th edition of Nordic Music Scene, a monthly section within God is in the TV that is dedicated to reviews and news of artists from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and their associated territories, focusing on indie artists and labels.
In this edition: I was a King, ViVii, Loaver, iris, Júníus Meyvant, Misty Coast, Cure-a-Phobia, Highasakite, Slide, Sigrid, Pom Poko, Victoria Voss, Rainbrother.
Sections this month: New Singles/Singles from previously featured artists/Albums
Singles, EPs and albums are now rated out of 10.
All the editions of Nordic Music Scene are stored under ‘Features’ on the GIITTV website or can be located by searching the website for ‘Nordic Music Scene’.
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(Norway) I was a King – Bubble
NMS has frequently featured the south west Norway singer-songwriter Anne Lise Frøkedal, who has prior connections with two bands as a vocalist and guitarist, namely the now defunct Harrys gym and I was a King, who are anything but. They hail from the same barren, windswept, moody south western coast of Norway that she does; the bit that looks like a polar region of Jupiter if you’ve ever flown over it. And that’s in the summer.
Following her exertions last year, with the release of her second album, ‘How we made it’ and an accompanying tour, Anne Lise returns to I was a King, who will release their new 12-track album Slow Century on March 8th via Coastal Town Recordings. It was written, recorded, and pressed to vinyl all in the picturesque town of Egersund on that coast.
With the album announcement the band has also released a new single, ‘Bubble’, the second album track. It sees Anne Lise sharing both vocal and guitar duties with Frode Strømstad.
While this is my first exposure to I was a King if there is something you can guarantee with Frøkedal at least it is that her lyrics will explore the boundaries of personal relationships. On this track she says, “Sometimes old friends can know you annoyingly well – to the point where they’re able to predict when you are about to mess it all up. The best ones will stand by you, right through the shit storm. ‘Bubble’ describes friendship in times of trouble; in times where we are not being the best versions of ourselves.”
Strømstad and Frøkedal’s work is influenced by a close collaboration with Norman Blake (Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub) – who produced the new album. I was fascinated to listen to Marc Riley when he hosted Frøkedal on 6Music back in November and of how Blake had introduced him to Frøkedal. There is a great similarity in their styles. So does that apply to I was a King, as well?
You bet your bottom dollar it does, and from the opening chord. In fact, they are pretty well interchangeable, with strong reminders in addition of The Beatles c. 1966 and The Byrds. Vocally, Strømstad and Frøkedal seem to merge into one.
It’s about as far away from a disco banger or Scandi dance pop as you could hope to get, so laid back you’ll find yourself transported back to the 1960s for three minutes. And you won’t want to come back again.
The album, which describes the tension between the lust for new adventures and the comfort of everyday small town life, will be reviewed at a later date.
(Sweden) Loaver -Therapy
Malmö, Sweden-based singer-songwriter Linnea Hall started her solo project Loaver with a desire to be able to showcase all sides of her experiences and inspirations. The music that will be released as Loaver’s debut EP – experimental, smooth and dark pop – was written and recorded in Italy during 2017, in close collaboration with artists such as Giovanni Ferrario (PJ Harvey, John Parish etc.), who produced the tracks, and Emanuele Maniscalco. The six tracks swing between the uttermost boundaries of emotions – love, hate, dreams, doubt, chaos and naivety.
The Loaver EP will be out on February 13th via Birds Records.
Apart from Loaver, Linnea Hall is also active in Malmö-based band Kluster, one that released their debut album, Civic, on Rama Lama Records in June 2018.
Sitting somewhere early Annie Clark in the early part of the song and Steady Holiday towards the end she cook ups a beguiling sound.
(Norway) iris – inside a car
Iris is a new artist from Bergen who recently signed with Made Management. Iris has been involved in Bergen’s music scene for many years and she has worked with many other projects.
Under her iris name, the 22-year old creates minimal electronic pop. She is currently putting the finishing touches to her first (five-track) EP, ‘A Sensitive Being’ which will be out in the spring (March 20th, 2019) on a new label, Made Records. The first tune dropped on January 16th, under the title ‘from inside a car’.
The synth-driven track was produced by Askjell Solstrand, who has frequently turned up in these columns as a producer of both Sigrid and Aurora and was inspired by a trip to Paris, where she only sees it “from my point of view”; unable to take in the perspective of others. Avoiding the gilets jaunes, she lived around France, working on farms, and experienced for the first time the energising power of loneliness. The old cliché, looking around a beautiful city and wishing you had someone to share it with, was flipped on its head for her.
Her delivery is not radically different here from that of other R&B influenced electro poppers but I did notice some vocal similarities on this track to one of my favourites, the endearingly crackpot Swede SoLBLoMMa, and couldn’t help but notice also that the second EP track, is titled ‘Hanging around you /Crackers’. That pretty much sold me on iris and hearing out the remainder of the EP she’s definitely worth checking out. She brings a thoughtful process to song writing and knows how to vary the pace, and her style.
(Norway) Misty Coast – Backseat Warriors
Misty Coast is the dream-pop, shoegaze combination of Linn Frøkedal (the sister of Anne Lise Frøkedal and she looks just like her) and Richard Myklebust (previously part of the Norwegian noise rock act The Megaphonic Thrift).
In September 2017 they released their debut full-length album and managed a Norwegian Grammy nomination, no mean feat. The Bergen-based duo is now preparing for their second album Melodaze, which the band members themselves describe as their “Berlin rebel album”.
The entirety of the second full-length was written under and influenced by the brutalism of the German capital’s architecture, during their two-month stay in an icy-cold outpost, observing local smoky beer joints and the groaning of car exhausts through the sub-zero night.
‘Backseat Warriors’ is the third single in the run-up to ‘Melodaze’. Frøkedal says, “We made this tune in Berlin at a point where we had no ideas left, so we switched instruments and it all came together in this weird little pop song. The melody almost sounds like a nursery rhyme, surrounded by a catchy bass line and seasick guitars. Producer Matias Tellez turned the knobs, and suddenly the song was floating in a universe like The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Distortion’ album.
‘Backseat Warriors’ is inspired by my childhood in the tiny village of Etne, located on the west coast of Norway. When I grew up there was nothing to do there, so if you didn’t happen to love football, horses or music, then you most likely spent the days styling your car or driving up and down the streets of Etne, collecting Wunderbaum – or Little Trees – in your rear-view mirror”.
Indeed, there is an element of the other Frøkedal’s work in the track, albeit it lacks the striking melody she can conjure up, and is infinitely more dreamy.
Backseat Warriors was released on 11th January 2019 and Melodaze on Brilliance Records/Moorworks on 25th January 2019.
Singles from previously featured artists
(Sweden) ViVii – And Tragic
Dream-pop trio ViVii released their new single ‘And Tragic’ on January 11th through Dumont Dumont. The track is taken from their eponymous debut album, which is set for release on March 15th.
The Gothenburg-originating couple Emil and Caroline Jonsson (now aided by Anders Eckeborn) only started writing and recording songs after they’d had children, which brought some structure to their lives and acted as a catalyst.
ViVii like their songs to take their own course and that is what happened with this one. They “had an idea about what this song was going to be about, but under the process it all changed and the song took its own turn. I guess that’s how we like to write music. But the essence of the song is that life is fun and tragic all at the same time.””
The single follows ‘Suckerpunch’, which was reviewed positively in NMS #8 (November) and which had a similar lyrical theme. That song attracted attention in the UK, notably from Guy Garvey on his 6Music programme.
Everything I’ve heard from them, including their debut EP ’Savant’ (May 2018), has been pleasing on the ear and ‘And Tragic’ is no different. There is something otherworldly about it with strong suggestions of suitability for syncing into film scores while the production is so rich it is almost overwhelming at times. And there’s a mesmerising riff, complemented by a section that sounds like it’s taken straight off ‘Tubular Bells’.
Having made their New York live debut at the Sweden Makes Music showcase on December 4th, ViVii are confirmed for this year’s SXSW festival in Texas, as well as Eurosonic (which is over by the time you read this) and By: Larm in Oslo in February and will play London’s Hoxton Bar and Kitchen on Feb 15th. As I’ve often said with Nordic bands, if you’ve picked up a ‘name’ DJ supporter in the UK, capitalise on it and get some more shows in. We don’t all live in London.
(Sweden) Slide – Floating
Swedish indie-rock duo Slide (Albin Skeppholm and Simon Werner) return with a new single, ‘Floating’, released on January 18th through If Music Could Talk /AWAL. Floating is taken from Slide’s debut EP, ‘Into Happiness’ ,which is set for release in Spring 2019 and it is the follow up to their debut single ‘Laugh Some More’, which was released in November. It is said to encapsulate the band’s spirit: rough around the edges but with plenty of heart, like all their rock heroes before. They include Red Hot Chili Peppers (for their inventiveness), Nirvana (languishing guitar tones) and Oasis for their penchant for anthemic choruses, even going further at times to Beck-like indie-pop.
Nirvana’s style dominated the previous single, (NMS #9) but not so much here.
‘Floating’ is unusual in that it doesn’t have a definitive meaning. The duo liked the idea of having the hallucinatory element of some of the instrumental being present in the lyrics as well. They say, “It could be about losing yourself in thought, and maybe losing yourself in love. Ultimately anything can become a ghost and whether it is just in your head or not doesn’t really matter. Either way you end up spending a whole lot of time in there…behind the eyes that is.”
If all that sounds a little hippie-ish, it is. Helps if you’re floating when you put the record on.
(Norway) Pom Poko – Crazy Energy Night
Pom Poko have released a new single, ‘Crazy Energy Night’ and accompanying video, probably the last before their debut album ‘Birthday’ drops on February 22nd.
It’s another aptly named song and another manic, wacky, furious, angular effort with Martin Miguel Tonne’s guitar driving both the main tune and the bridge well in excess of the speed limit.
Pom Poko is of course named after the Japanese animated comedy-drama fantasy film from the 1990s and the band seems to have a thing about weird animation. The accompanying video here centres on a collection of papier mâché characters crafted by the Norwegian art collective Narves1Biblioteke.
It is odd, comical and occasionally off-putting. The problem with such graphic visuals like this is that sometimes a live performance can be found to be lacking without them. That’s unlikely to be the case with Pom Poko however as they are one of the most visually energetic, dynamic bands I’ve ever seen. In fact, now they’ve finally announced live UK dates, I’m more concerned that in some environs, such as The Castle in Manchester, which is one of the hottest I know, they could spontaneously combust, frying the audience along with them.
This track, and others from the album, such as ‘Follow The Lights’ and ‘My Blood’ have picked up extensive radio play recently on BBC 6 Music, particularly from Steve Lamacq and Marc Riley (who will feature them in session in April). Nice to know the BBC is at last keeping up with Nordic Music Scene and GIITTV, which have a year’s start on them.
Forthcoming tour dates in the UK and Ireland:
Fri 22 Feb – Shacklewell Arms, London UK **sold out**
Sat 6 Apr – Whelan’s (Upstairs), Dublin
Mon 8 Apr – Hug & Pint, Glasgow
Tue 9 Apr – Castle Hotel, Manchester
Wed 10 Apr – Lexington, London
(Norway) Sigrid – Don’t feel like crying
Another Norwegian artist releasing possibly the last single before her album ‘Sucker Punch’ is released on March 8th, is Sigrid.
The superlatives surrounding Sigrid have been well aired already so I’ll focus solely on this track. What Sigrid does very well is to present her issues, which no doubt many of her young female fans have as well, in a fearless, almost triumphalist manner, like there’s nothing that can deflect her from her chosen path, in affairs of the heart, or whatever else. If Donald Trump needs a speechwriter he needs to look no further than Bergen.
To use her own words, “there’s a certain grace to heartache, a sort of…epic grace! I like good, heartfelt pop songs.”
Here she states almost from the off that “wallowing in it would be such a waste…that isn’t gonna fix it anyway”. Then the hook, “I dry my eyes ‘coz I don’t feel like crying”. Those sentiments, repeated, are pretty much it, with the addition of a short rappy section as the bridge and closing section, with, again, a big booming production. It’s punchy and short (two minutes 38 seconds). Q.E.D.
She’s quite the opposite of artists like Adele or Fiona Apple, who wallow in self pity or indulge in verbal voodoo doll revenge on the ‘ex’. It’s like she’s found the secret formula that had evaded science, and parents, for centuries. Take it on the chin, dust yourself down and get on with your life.
And it will keep her in chart hits for years to come.
Sigrid commences a UK tour supporting George Ezra in March, taking in arenas in Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool, Brighton, Nottingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield, Manchester (two shows) and London (two shows).
However, they are all sold out.
(Sweden/France) Victoria Voss – Karma
Karma is the second single from Victoria Voss, the Swedish/French pop artist-songwriter and sustainable food-scientist, an interesting combination of roles.
There are several songs with the word Karma in the title including Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’ and Sol Heilo’s ‘Killing Karma’ but I’ve never heard such innovative use as in “I’m karma, karma, karming for ya”.
Karma is a song about a passionate but toxic relationship crippled by arguments and frustration, a similar theme to Heilo’s take on it but in a wholly different, mischievous Latino fashion. Then the track is broken up by a heavier trap beat section which leads, courtesy of one of those grizzly male voices that advertise aftershave products or fast cars on TV into a chorus that definitively declares that “Karma is a bitch”. Victoria sings the last bridge in French, honouring the French aspect of her roots but I’m not sure what the point of that is. The Swedish part of her ensures a strong hook.
There are a couple of lines which attracted my attention: “Blow up, that’s what you do when you get mad at me/ throw up, (but) tonight you’re only drinking jealousy”. Then, “Shut up, that’s what I do when you get loud at me/roll up, tonight you’re only smoking vanity”. Graphic, but clever.
She has mainly written for other artists in recent years, those signed to labels such as Warner, Universal Music and BMG.
If she can keep this standard up I’d be inclined to suggest she leaves environmental sustainability to Al Gore and Sir David Attenborough.
‘Karma’ is released on February 1st on the Rehn Music label.
(Denmark) Rainbrother – The Master
Danish psych rockers Rainbrother have released a new single, ‘The Master’ from their forthcoming album ‘Island’ which is scheduled for release on March 29th. Fronted by songwriter Bjarke Bendtsen, the five-piece explore themes of voluntary isolation, lost love and self-acceptance over ten tracks. The metaphorical ‘Island’ refers to withdrawing from the digital noise of the physical world, taking stock of what’s important and choosing to spend more time with the people that you really care for.
In order to escape the rat race temporarily and record the album, the band relocated to the attic of an old farm along with producer Kennie Takahashi (Danger Mouse, Beck, Black Keys).
The band made a name for themselves at SXSW last year when Bjarke Bendtsen was denied entry to the U.S. The solution was to improvise with a pre-taped performance with Bendtsen projected on a screen behind a drummer while they played their parts in sync.
All the album tracks were recorded without a click track so the songs could flow freely.
A long (6:47), initially slow and ambient track, ‘The Master’ picks up pace suddenly half way though, takes a five-second break, then is taken out of orbit by the thrust of searing guitars with both a prog and a metal feel to them . Quite a powerful piece of work which bodes well for the album.
(Iceland) Júníus Meyvant – Across the Borders
The Viking-looking (see main photo) Júníus Meyvant released his second album, ‘Across the Borders’ on January 25th, delayed from November, via the independent Icelandic label, Record Records and Glassnote. He was featured in NMS# 7 and #9 with two tracks from the album, High Alert’ and ‘Let it pass’.
Born and raised on Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland, Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson has been releasing music under the moniker of Júníus Meyvant since 2014, having been brought up in a musical and religious household. He was a latecomer to music, only taking up guitar in his early twenties. In 2015, Júníus received ‘Best Single’ and ‘Newcomer of the Year’ at the Icelandic Music Awards, marking him as an important new talent amidst the diverse Icelandic music scene. He released his debut full length, Floating Harmonies in 2016. ‘Across The Borders’ is his first new material since that debut LP.
The album was recorded at the renowned Hljóðriti Studio at Hafnarfjörður (try saying that when you’ve had a few) on the outskirts of Reykjavik, which is regarded as one of the world’s leading studios.
One of the benefits of that particular arrangement is the high quality orchestral arrangements that crop up throughout the album. Sometimes I find them superfluous but in this instance they add greatly to the recording. The opening track for example, ‘Lay your head,’ while chilled and laid back, runs the gamut of interesting instrumental sounds.
Meyvant’s expressive voice also quickly becomes apparent on this track while his style, which varies somewhere between a superior version of the pop you expect from Ed Sheerhan or Sam Smith and an Icelandic version of Northern Soul, also becomes apparent.
Right from the start I struggled to find any one individual to compare Júníus to. At a pinch, perhaps Gregory Alan Isakov but then on ‘Love child’ he confounds that by doing a passable imitation of Rod Stewart.
You could listen to the album solely for the music, and on one track in particular, ‘Across the Border’ there is an intriguing experimental instrumental ending that could perhaps have been drawn out and developed further.
On the other hand he is lyrically erudite. On ‘High Alert’, where the Northern Souldom predominates notably, despite its perceived upbeat nature Júníus explains there’s actually a darker side to the origin of the lyrics: “‘High Alert’ is about one-dimensional self-pitying talk amongst grown human beings, it’s the old cliché that you get kicked out and you get lost in desperation and self-pity. One day you have it all and the next day you’re looking over your shoulder because of a (collective) paranoia of wrong doings.”
Those comments possibly reference Iceland’s financial crash, which almost finished the country off. It is written from the perspective though of someone whose tiny home island, separated from the mainland and with just 4,000 inhabitants, is underpinned by the fishing industry, which wasn’t adversely affected, and by tourism, which actually benefitted from the crash, then itself became synonymous with greed (half of Reykjavik’s accommodation seems to have been given over to airbnb). Quite a paradox, but that’s Iceland for you, where there’s a song waiting to be written on every street corner.
‘Holidays’ is more of a pop song, with backing from a phalanx of instruments but still with that pervasive Northern Soul feel to it, and builds into a culminating sing-along.
That feel is evident again in ‘Let it Pass’; a melodic feel-good song through and through. It would have pleased the regular crowd at the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester in the 1960s.
‘New Waves’ is a diversion from what has gone before, with a pulsating beat, backed by omnipresent brass and woodwind that gels into a big band sound, while ‘Carry on with me’ is different again, with a slower beat and itself carrying a powerful, almost Gerry & the Pacemakers’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, or even Gabriel-Bush ‘Don’t Give Up’-like message. Oh, and the Rod Stewart vocal is back again. Possibly the most impressive track on the album, absolutely the most emotional, and a definite live set-ender, it begs for reissue as a male-female duet. With Björk? Or perhaps better Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir or Soffía Björg?
‘Punch through the night’ is yet another change of direction, with a harpsichord and Hammond Organ supported by a rapid beat. But the biggest surprise is the vocal. I thought I’d accidentally put on a George Ezra song. Júníus lacks for nothing where versatility is concerned.
‘Draw the Line’ takes us into slow-burning, protracted ballad territory and he can do that, too. It even has what sounds like a euphonium solo.
The album ends, appropriately, with ‘Until the last minute’, the sort of song which plays out the last dance at a wedding reception when only the groom is left standing, if you get my drift.
It’s an easy listening but intriguing album. Having reviewed two singles already I was thinking that perhaps Júníus Meyvant and Sweden’s Magnus Carlson could kick-start another Northern Soul revival between them. At the same time I was dreading an entire album of beat-laden fast tempo northern-ness.
But there’s much more to it than that, it is an album that grew on me with every change of track and I’m sure ‘Carry on with me’ would be a successful single anywhere, it has all the attributes. For that reason alone it merits:
Júníus Meyvant will tour the UK (London, Manchester, and Bristol) in February 2019. Can he replicate this sound (hardly likely unless he brings the Iceland Symphony Orchestra with him) or will he plump for an acoustic set? Rumour has it there will be a full brass band at least. How will a modern day audience react to Northern Soul? It should be fascinating.
Mon 25 Feb – Village Underground, London
Tuesday 26 Feb – Deaf Institute, Manchester
Thursday 28 Feb – Thekla, Bristol
(Sweden/Norway) Cure-a-Phobia – Regeneration
After a four-year hiatus the all-female progressive pop band Cure-a-Phobia returns with a new (third) album, ‘Regeneration’. It’s a feminist statement par excellence in parts but also an excellent record featuring a subtle cabaret style I thought had disappeared along with Katzenjammer, interspersed with freeform jazz improvisation.
Cure-a-Phobia formed in 2011, initially as a group experiment in overcoming fears, hence its odd name. Stage fright, performance anxiety and inferiority complexes were primary targets that were attacked. The experiment focused on exposing the musicians’ fears by throwing them into the unknown, for example by playing an instrument they hadn’t mastered and exposing its (and their) soul to the audience.
‘Regeneration’ was recorded in the legendary Tambourine Studios in Malmö, southern Sweden, where The Cardigans produced all their hits. It touches on themes such as oppression, adversity, and liberation. Cure-a-Phobia stands up for the ‘sisterhood’ and calls for extensive change.
The album opens with ‘Highly Offensive’, which pulls no punches. It is partly a song about the prevalent subject of male abuse of females, part a ‘Male etiquette for Dummies’ guide and partly ‘we sisters are doing it for ourselves and we don’t need no help’. It is clear straight away that Cure-a-Phobia are clever wordsmiths (“Some of them will when/you hold the door for them/be so confused that they won’t know how to get in/And some of them will when/you perform better than them/be so offended they won’t know where to, know where to begin”).
Lead vocalist Jenny Nilsson delivers a highly Kate Bush-like song in a manner the Bexleyheath lady would undoubtedly admire and then does it again and again throughout the album. It’s like Kate never went away. The other thing that is immediately evident is that they know how to integrate a string quartet, and antique equipment such as a Wurlitzer and a pump organ. That doesn’t always work. This does. An impressive start.
‘Barbie Girl’ is the second track, one we reviewed in NMS as a single. Introduced by a mournful violin, Cure-a-Phobia give it their best shot at making Aqua’s 1997 global hit even darker than the original, having been given permission by Aqua to cover it. It always was dark. It pre-dated Weinstein, #MeToo and the rest of it by a couple of decades, with its suggestive lyrics, “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere”, “Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky”, and “Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly” amongst others. Then the coup de grace, “Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please/I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees”.
They’ve slowed it right down, changed the dynamic, captured (buzzword alert) the zeitgeist and turned it into a waltz. You can imagine it being played in some seedy lounge bar at the wrong end of Sunset Boulevard on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Steve Buscemi asleep, drunk, in a corner. Lyndsay Lohan rolling something in another.
There’s a guest appearance by singer Max Tellving as Ken, while Johnny Essing, guitar player with the Swedish cult band bob hund also makes an appearance.
There was talk of this version being adopted for a new U.S. TV drama but unfortunately it seems sync rights were denied.
‘Hunt them Down’ also has strong overtones of Ms Bush, in fact the opening bars could be ‘Man with the child in his eyes’. Once again, the strings play a huge part in creating atmosphere, supporting Nilsson’s haunting vocals. The lyrics are disturbing:
“See my sisters/on the cold, hard ground/Wounds and blisters/Trying to keep them down/See my brothers/They won’t make a sound/friends and mothers/I will hunt them down”.
It occurred to me it might concern the suffragette movement, and that is apparently the case.
The more upbeat ‘La Chanson du Cochon’ (The Song of the Pig) was also reviewed as a single and is an overtly political song targeting a list of perceived wrongs in society perpetrated by “Generation Ego.” It is a call for humanity to start taking care of the world and each other, the premise being that to make the world a better place we must all take responsibility for our actions. The question is who is actually the pig? Is it the little harmless animal that is exploited and slaughtered by man or the human pig, which ruthlessly exploits the world for its own gain? It features consistent, accented rhyming that Eminem would be proud of.
“What is this in-san-ity/We lost touch with re-al-ity/What happened to hum-an-ity/I blame it on soc-ie-ty/The never-ending ir-on-y/of human men-tal-ity/destroys our via-bi-lity/and that’s what really bothers me/We are what we are”
“People in auth-or-ity/Dismiss their lia-bil-ity/The end of our own his-tor-y/A rising pro-ba-bil-ity/We need to end all po-ver-ty/oppression of min-or-ity/And make it a pri-or-ity/to achieve equa-lity…
As I said in the single review, I’d be inclined to add, “It’s all too much- for- me/I’ll just have a cup-of- tea”.
To be frank, there is a temptation when listening to this track to imagine that you are at some GCSE sociology evening class in Camden, listening to a song penned by the tutor, Roz, during her vacation at a Peace Corps rally in Haight-Ashbury. But you can’t deny Cure-a-Phobia’s earnestness.
‘Good intentions’ seems to contrast excessive, cloying parental concern with the needs of the young to fly the nest and take a gap year or whatever:
“All they want I suppose is to save her from the world/Keep her solid and safe everywhere she goes…/But when she wakes up/she’s falling and doesn’t want to stop/keep on falling and never hit the ground/No, she never wanted “safe and sound”.
In ‘My Daddy Said’ there is a similar theme, one in which the singer debates with ‘daddy’, who is full of parental advice, while she just yearns to break free and do her own thing. There is a wonderful play on words involving “honey”, with pop saying;
“It’s not your clothes; not your money/That makes you shine like you do/It’s not your gold, it’s your honey/That makes you you”.
“Don’t stay in bed when it’s sunny/you’ll waste your day if you do/And put your seatbelt on honey/Enjoy the view”.
The more I listen the more I find it hard to credit that Cure-a-Phobia aren’t British, or American with English as their mother tongue, and I recommend everyone listens carefully to their brilliantly crafted lyrics.
‘Under the Surface’ is a soporific affair to do with trying to find one’s inner self while ‘Falling Apart’ , which features a nice bit of slide guitar as well as a (powerful) instrumental ending for a change, chronicles a change of personal circumstances from divine to diabolical and the singer’s attempts to deal with that change without help.
‘Happiness’ was of course a song by the late, great Ken Dodd. Here it is a violin-heavy one which concerns societal pressure to be happy and perfect and to aim for success without the space for emotions and personal struggle. It is underscored by some of the most piercing lyrics on the album:
“I’ll rather die before I’d fall into your trap/I’m not someone who’d swallow all your crap/with your house and your happy end/with your car and your pretty friend… (reprise)…/With your gold and your perfect life/With your job and your trophy wife.”
In ‘Follow the Light’ the song seems to follow a similar path to that of ’Yellow light’ by Of Monsters and Men, right down to the extended outro. The OMAM song deals with the afterlife and following the marker to get there and there is something similarly ethereal about Cure-a-Phobia’s effort while it suggests something more of a conversion on the Road to Damascus. However, Jenny Nilsson informs me it is really about those odd days where you feel strong and believe in yourself and you can see the end of the tunnel, the light of the future.
“Now I don’t cry like I use to before/I close my eyes and just open the door/and follow the, I follow the, I follow the light.”
The final track, ‘Birthday Child’, a fantasy about a parallel universe where Jenny Nilsson had the child of the title at 21, features an intriguing piano/violin duet.
This is a complex album to précis in a paragraph. On the downside some of the melodies have a similar feel to them and could be stronger. But the plus side is one of smart lyricism, inventiveness and the challenge Cure-a-Phobia consistently throws down to the listener. Emotions vary from sadness to playfulness; it is light but dark at the same time. It isn’t an easy listen but the journey is an absorbing one.
‘Regeneration’ was released on January 18th by Comedia.
(Norway) Highasakite – Uranium Heart
Highasakite’s third international album has been awaited with growing interest, not least by your reviewer, as it is the first one since the band reverted to its initial constitution of a duo, that of founders Ingrid Helene Håvik and Trond Bersu, as three others, all top class musicians and writers in their own right, went their own ways.
I have previously expressed concern that a change of emphasis towards a mainstream pop style that was evident in their (Håvik/Bersu) collaboration with Norwegian writers and producers Stargate on the single ‘5 Million Miles’ in 2017 was creeping into their work generally and was equally apparent in at least some of the four singles they released during 2018. It seemed to be a painful shift away from the intelligent indie pop that had attracted me and many others to Highasakite in the first place and I even went so far as to suggest Ingrid may have been badly advised on her future direction.
Their first album, Silent Treatment chronicled Håvik’s personal life and demons, with references to deceased lovers, margins-of-society acquaintances who vanished into thin air, her (self)-destructive propensities and domestic abuse. It was hard-hitting. “Oh I used to smother his pride, he was lifting me by the hair; oh, I used to smother his pride, he was dragging me down the stairs”, she sang on the self-explanatory ‘Leaving no traces’.
‘Camp Echo’, named after the isolation unit at Guantanamo Bay, was a different kettle of North Sea cod as Håvik turned her attention to global politics, with one character, a notorious U.S. Marine commander, appearing in two different songs, one of them concerned with the similarly infamous siege of Fallujah in Iraq, while ‘My name is liar’ parodied just about every world leader connected with the Second Gulf War. Even then though, she found room for the beautiful ‘God don’t leave me’ which again returned to her personal predicament as a teenager.
Almost three years on the new/old Highasakite has been shaped by the band’s splitting up, Ingrid having a baby and, as she said in connection with the release of the first single, her desire to reach out and rediscover why she started writing in the first place. While she is the main writer, Trond Bersu should not be overlooked. Both of them are Trondheim Conservatory trained (that’s where they met) and Bersu was always a lot more than just ‘the drummer’ (and a highly accomplished one at that), now turning his attention to keyboards and production as well on ‘Uranium Heart’.
Three of those four 2018 singles are included on the new album: the first one, ‘Out of Order’; ‘Mexico’ which is in two parts; and ‘I call bullshit’. The one that isn’t is ‘Elastic State of Mind’, surprisingly perhaps as it is the one which apparently made the biggest impact in Norway.
And so, the acid test. How would these contrasts in Ingrid’s life, and their previous work, impact on the 11-track ‘Uranium Heart’? If at all?
‘Too Early’ gets the album under way magnificently, Ingrid’s unique, occasionally soaring, almost supernatural voice immediately evident just as it was on ‘Lover, where do you live’ the first song on ‘Silent Treatment’. A slow ballad with a complex, underscoring keys arrangement. Ethereal, perfectly weighted, and subtly beautiful.
In contrast, ‘Revolution’ is a bit of synth-based plodder, barely enlightened by a middle eight of any great quality.
When I reviewed ‘I call bullshit’, a song that is a call-to-arms for party animals, as a single I made reference to Ingrid’s endearing use of her own language, one I call Norwegish. “Who cares if we are wrong or right, let’s live like we are out of night” is one of her more comprehensible efforts here. But the strength of the song is in its unusual melody, its complex arrangements and the harmonies that make you yearn for Marte Eberson still to be there on backing vocals in live shows.
‘Mexico’ was the fourth and last single to be released. It gets underway as a gentle ballad, before an almighty chorus kicks in, with Ingrid’s vocals soaring again and she sounds a little like Susanne Sundfør in places on this one; listen to the way she nasally drones “a fox in a henhouse’. It is overlaid with complex synths and Trond Bersu’s trademark booming percussion. Guaranteed to be a live show favourite.
‘Mexico Part 2’ is a short and haunting reprise of the main song.
‘Hail of bullets’ sounds from the title as if it is on the wrong album and should be on ‘Camp Echo’ instead. But there’s none of the brutality of that work in it, in fact it reminds me more of songs of the calibre of ‘Man on the Ferry’ and ‘Science and Blood Tests’ on the first album as Ingrid questions whether her opposite number has a heart, a pulse, a soul and ears to listen. The melody isn’t striking but it is interspersed by some imposing synth work from Bersu.
‘Out of Order’ has the strongest melody on the album so far and there are again some powerful reminders of the sound and atmosphere they fabricated on the first album complete with her propensity to “be” something else as she role-plays her songs about her “baby”. Here it is “inoperable”, a “runaway child” who’s “out of order”, or “owta fowdah” as she pronounces it. Previously she’s been “a hand grenade”, “a bomb” and “my own disease”.
Ingrid’s lyrics are often dark. “I’ll commit murder to keep him warm” she insists though she’s never come close to the shocking opening lines of her 2013 solo song ‘Marianna’. So it may surprise you to learn that this one was loosely inspired by the passing of Trond Bersu’s grandmother.
Her vocals are as striking as ever on this track, and ably supported by arresting drumming and electronics from Bersu and a trademark big synth/percussive ending.
The lengthy (six and a half minute) ‘Egomaniac’ again has hints of ‘Silent Treatment’ about it (along with a flavour of Emeli Sandé’s ‘Next to Me’) until about two minutes in when it switches into the territory of ‘Camp Echo’ tracks such as Samurai Swords’ and ‘My mind is a bad neighbourhood’ and thereafter it flits between the two styles throughout. It’s a song that demands close lyrical attention. Ingrid has come in, rightly or wrongly for some criticism in Norway for a “self-centred” approach since the departure of other band members and I did wonder if she might even have been singing, ironically and tongue-in-cheek, about herself here.
Musically, it’s a kaleidoscope of sound, but it probably goes on a wee bit too long.
The title track, ‘Uranium Heart’ couldn’t be more different and introduces a style I’ve never heard from the band previously, an acoustic guitar focused country and western one. I could imagine Kacey Musgraves or Courtney Marie Andrews covering this one. And it’s rather good.
‘Stick with you’ is performed in another unusual style for Highasakite, as a slow, soft ballad with minimal instrumentation and in which Ingrid employs an entirely new vocal; that of a young teenager. Its meaning is not immediately clear but she appears to sing “I think I’ll stick with you/ because you saved me every day on this playground” which suggests it is the recounting of an enduring friendship across the years. I suspect this one will be a slow burner.
The album ends with a short instrumental ‘Outro’ which for some reason puts me in mind of part of M83’s own ‘Outro’ on ‘Hurry up, we’re dreaming’ but without the inspirational vocal. There is no apparent reason for it other than it is an obvious bolt-on to ‘Stick with you’ just as ‘Mexico Part 2’ is to ‘Mexico’. There will be a logical explanation but I haven’t fathomed it yet.
I’ll cut to the chase here. Any Highasakite fan who was expecting an album with the power of either of the first two records will be disappointed. There is no ‘Hiroshima’ or ‘God don’t leave me’ here, let alone an ‘Iran’ or ‘I, the Hand Grenade’ and the manic hippie rhythms of ‘Indian Summer’ on the first (domestic) album, ‘All that floats will rain’ seem to be five million miles away.
Those sounds we have come to associate with Highasakite, Kristoffer Lo’s jangly guitar and flugabone, that bastard child of a squashed trombone with valves, with its haunting moaning sound like a Metrolink tram’s warning horn, have been consigned to history, along with Ingrid’s own zither and steel drums. We are down to the basics now – synths, drums, pads, and larynx.
‘Uranium Heart’ is, instead, probably Ingrid’s most personal band work to date and it has been moulded by the life changes I mentioned earlier, together with the fact that she is a proper adult now, having turned 30. A sense of reflection pervades it and the pace is adjusted accordingly.
It veers towards the personal sentiments of ‘Silent Treatment’ while very occasionally displaying the heavy armoury of ‘Camp Echo’ but crucially it is a standalone statement just as much as her solo album ‘Babylove’ was six years ago. It marks a new beginning for Highasakite in the clearest possible way.
Whether their huge fan base will warm to it remains to be seen. The first two albums were instantly accessible – I fell in love with them in the space of a few seconds when an invisible Ingrid intoned “Lover where do you live” off a darkened stage, instantly silencing 2,000 people four years ago – but I suspect few will open their own heart to ‘Uranium Heart’ that quickly.
Over time though, I fully expect this album to be viewed as an essential component in the pantheon of their work.
Uranium Heart is released on 1st February on Propeller Recordings.
Highasakite will undertake a short UK and Ireland tour, as a four-piece band, prior to an arena tour of Norway. Dates as follows:
28 February – Heaven, London
1st March – Band on the Wall, Manchester
2nd March – Whelans, Dublin
Main photo of Junius Meyvant by SiggaElla