There’s a tendency to think of joy, especially joy expressed via music, as a kind of mindlessness. Not that stupidity and happiness necessarily go together, but that real exultation is accompanied or caused by something that makes you stop thinking, that reflection is antithetical to simple pleasure. Sex, drugs, and (a certain kind of) rock ‘n’ roll are such a revered trinity precisely because they take you out of you own self for a while, and that kind of primal thrill is often taken to be the best, truest, or most desirable kind of happiness.
Anyone living anything approaching a normal life knows that kind of belief is at best oversimplifying things (which of course is part of the appeal), but bands who devote themselves to a more cerebral kind of joy are few and far between. Actually, except for Slaraffenland (which translates to “the land of milk and honey” in their native Danish), I can’t think of another band that does so. There’s something loose-limbed and free-flowing about the music on the quintet’s third album, but there’s also a rigor to the dense instrumental patterns and arrangements (which borrow as much from jazz as from post-rock), and a restraint to the vocals, that ensures that everything sunny about Slaraffenland’s music feels hard-won. When they sing “I’m the one who’ll take your side”, it doesn’t sound any more or less elated than when they sing “We have lost our place”. And it is always “they”—Slaraffenland’s vocals tend to sound at least double-tracked, and the effect combined with the often flatly declaimed but oddly rousing lyrics was best summed up by the leadoff track of their recent Sunshine EP: “I’m a machine, a machine, can’t you see that I’m trying?”
And that sense of trying, of struggle, is what makes Slaraffenland so endearing. Things aren’t always happy-go-lucky throughout We’re on Your Side, but even when the music gets wobbly and distorted at the end of “Too Late to Think”, those vocals remain strong and clear. The happiness that Slaraffenland does deal in is found in the burnished horns and woodwinds and the steady beat threaded through their songs, in the calm reassurance of what they’re saying and the fraternal calm they use to express it. Slaraffenland often sing about uncertain or threatening circumstances, but with the kind of durable resolve to make things okay that leaves the listener with the impression that these problems are surmountable. The band-as-entity comes across as too serious about things to dismiss their problems without thinking them through first, but also as steadfast and resourceful in dealing with those problems. Near the end of “Open Your Eyes” they sing, “Remove the mask you wear / it’s invisible anyways”. That’s the kind of contentment they’re looking for and the kind the band evokes: the contentment of knowing yourself and dealing with the world and with people honestly.
Slaraffenland songs don’t have choruses so much as chants, refrains, and slogans, and in much the same way We’re on Your Side benefits greatly from the consistency of the band’s sound. There aren’t really any tracks that stand out the way “I’m a Machine” did on Sunshine, but there aren’t any weak links here either. If you like the beaming “Meet and Greet” or the vaguely unsettling “Hunting” (which makes “I won’t track you down” sound strangely reassuring), you’ll likely enjoy everything here. And if at first Slaraffenland seem too self-possessed and self-sufficient to be appealing, well, wait until the next time you feel a bit down and give them another try. The comfort they promise may sound a bit austere at first, but it’s even more satisfying for its lack of outward fervor.
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// Notes from the Road
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