[24 April 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Singer-songwriter Sarah Assbring has been compared by some to fellow Swede Jens Lekman, and on the surface, you can see why, as both artists, in addition to having toured together and collaborated on a 2004 split seven-inch release, cleverly combine the DIY charm of indie rock with classic elements of 1960s Brill Building pop. However, while the charismatic Lekman is able to wow audiences with his witty lyrics and self-deprecating humor, by comparison, Assbring, who goes by the nom de plume El Perro Del Mar, is like the quiet wallflower. She coos away in a voice so fragile you don’t know if she’s going to start laughing or burst into tears, and her songs are not just melancholic, they’re unflinchingly miserable, rife with emotional devastation, and when she does make an attempt at humor, it’s of the blackest sort.
One of the biggest revelations of 2006, El Perro Del Mar’s eponymous second album was a near perfect marriage of gentle, upbeat melodies and downright morose sentiment, as Assbring drew inspiration from sounds firmly rooted in the early to mid-1960s, from Phil Spector’s girl groups, to doo wop, to Burt Bacharach’s ‘60s body of work, led by the drop-dead gorgeous single “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)” and the winsome cover of Brenda Lee’s “Here Comes That Feeling Again”. Under the gently sweet arrangements of string synths and horns, though, was a real heart of darkness, as songs like “Candy”, “Party”, and “Dog” proved to be as emotionally wrenching as the aforementioned pair of tracks was beautiful. Trust El Perro Del Mar to take such a timeless, genuinely fun line like Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and make it the most depressing phrase ever.
Judging solely upon the descriptions of Assbring’s music, it sure doesn’t seem like the most enjoyable music around, but on El Perro Del Mar there was a palpable sense of contentment with all that misery, and perhaps even a small, flickering glimmer of candlelight in the midst of all that darkness holding listeners captive. On the much-anticipated follow-up, though, it’s as if an icy breeze came along and snuffed that sole source of light and warmth out. From the Valley to the Stars sees Assbring truly experiencing a dark night of the soul.
In fact, this album drips with so much irony, that you might want to wear a slicker. Opening with a doleful organ and layered vocals, “Jubilee” has Assbring repeating the word, “Jubilation,” but considering her extremely deadpan delivery, the album’s mood won’t be close to anything resembling jubilant. “Glory to the World” desperately tries to brighten the mood, Assbring singing about clouds in the sky and flowers, but like the accompanying flute melody, the prevailing sense of hopelessness never leaves. And you’d expect a song titled “Happiness Won Me Over” to be the tiniest bit joyous, but with its somber, hymn-like tone, it sounds like it’s being sung at a funeral.
For all the desolation, though, there’s no shortage of unadulterated beauty. The spooky, ethereal twist on doo wop that Julee Cruse and Angelo Badalementi created is replicated to gorgeous effect on “How Did We Forget?”, as Assbring creates a mood that is simultaneously lush and stark, the mix full, but the economy of the multiple instrumental tracks keeping things in check. “To Give Love” is refreshingly simple in its chamber pop approach, Assbring’s repeated phrase of, “There’s still time to give love,” packing a wallop. Just as restrained is the strong nocturnal vibe of “Inner Island”, as subtle synths take a back seat to Assbring’s rich vocal harmonies. Whe do get instances where El Perro del Mar comes to sounding playful, but the jaunty “Somebody’s Baby” has Assbring clearly emphasizing that the guy in question is somebody’s and not hers, while the anxiety in Assbring’s narrator eliminates any hope whatsoever, as she sings, “Tell me when can I see you again? / Tell me how far did you go / When did you find a new place to stay / Please make sure you let me know the way.”
Comprised of 16 tracks over 43 minutes, From the Valley to the Stars is peppered with song fragments and mood pieces in the one to two minute range, but while such an idea often leads to an album that comes off as wildly unfocused, El Perro Del Mar keeps everything remarkably cohesive, the interludes smoothly leading into the lengthier tracks. While not as instantly gratifying as her lovable previous album, Assbring explores more subtle approaches on her third CD, finding a sublime musical complement to her voice, and by the time were hit with the climax of “Someday I’ll Understand (Love Will Be My Mirror)” and the wrenching “Your Name is Neverending”, we find ourselves more than willing to go along for the ride, no matter how rife with sadness it may be.