As sharp and ingeniously versatile as the metaphorical title object of her debut album, the Norwegian electro-pop chanteuse who captured the attention of over two million YouTube viewers with her darkly delectable interpretation of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”, will prove this month that her brooding cover was anything but a fluke. Easily one of the best albums of the year thus far, few debut records brush up against perfection as effortlessly as Mr Little Jeans’ Pocketknife.
Named after a minor character in Wes Anderson’s quirky 1998 film Rushmore, L.A.-based Monica Birkenes’s voice recalls Aussie singer Kate Miller-Heidke, a less eccentric Lykke Li, a poppier Karen O, a grittier, less glossy Annie, and Kylie if she strapped on an electric guitar and got into Pat Benatar mode. At once sensuous and wispy, edgy and crystalline, it evokes a sense of childlike wonder one moment and the vulnerable, weather-beaten resignation of adulthood the next. Comparisons aside, her deft songwriting and poetic lyricism should garner a lot of attention in the following months.
The wistful romanticism of opening track “Rescue Song” teeters perilously close to the edge of twee territory, but thankfully never fully surrenders to levels that nauseating. Birkenes’s delivery recalls that of Nina Persson and the Cardigans, accompanied by a sunny ‘60s meets new wavy ‘80s sensibility. If ever there was a song more tailor-made to be plastered across the background of a TV advertisement, it hasn’t been encountered since Feist’s “1234”. It’s one of those instantly hummable, guilty pleasure tracks, flitting between the relative darkness of its lyrics and the buoyancy of its melody.
The head-bobbing “Mercy” follows with its skittering drums and shimmering electric guitars. Elegiac cellos tread softly underneath her vocals as she sings the lyrics “quiet before the storm”. It’s a lovely touch. The widescreen ‘80s pop sheen of “Runaway” and the irresistable, guitar-laden “Haunted” recall the hook-heavy songs of Ladyhawke’s 2008 self-titled debut, and the multi-tracked chorus of “Don’t Run” sounds like Wilson Phillips updated and re-envisioned with a slight hip-hop flair.
The brilliant, lo-fi dance track “Good Mistake” pulses with a pitch-black heart and a wry sense of humor. For every obvious, witty lyrical turn such as “Blow out the candles on your cake / It’s another year due with the same mistakes”, there’s another enigmatic verse open to interpretation. The lyrics “Blood on your hands / And your hands still roam / But your secret is safe with the garden gnome. Those marks on your neck never seem to fade / Bring a marching band for the masquerade” are rife with colorful imagery, but they reveal little about Birkenes’s inner world. Lyrical ambiguity seems to be her calling card throughout most of Pocketknife, but with killer choruses as magnificent as those she has written, it only adds a intriguing layer of mystery to her charming persona. These intricate songs are often as much a cerebral celebration as they are dance floor ready.
In an album of such strong offerings, the fourth track “Oh Sailor”, proves to be one of the most memorable moments in the entire record. The unconventional pop song, with its toy piano and atmospheric electronics, sees Birkenes accompanied by L.A.’s Silverlake Conservatory of Music Youth Chorale. Most of Pocketknife was written with Tim Anderson, who also produced the debut of Ryan Gosling’s band Dead Man’s Bones. It was in that album that Anderson first worked with the chorale and through him Mr Little Jeans was introduced to the children’s ensemble. “I wrote the chorus specifically for a kid’s choir to sing, and fortunately I was able to pull it off! Having the kids there was magical, it really adds a lot to the whole feel of the song,” said Birkenes. “The general idea behind ‘Oh Sailor’ is that there is always someone out there with you, even if you can’t see them.” It shouldn’t work, but it does and beautifully so.
“Lady Luck”, with its pounding drums and beguiling boomerang imagery breezes right by like a summery sunday drive, providing but a momentary sunlit interlude before Birkenes takes a sinister left turn into a sketchy neighborhood best avoided after dark. Her eerily menacing cover of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” surpasses the original, offering a horror movie version of suburbia gone to hell. It’s a testament to her talent that the tranquil electro-ballad that follows, “Heaven Sent”, doesn’t sound at all jarring after such an ominous cover. The repeat button was created for gorgeous tracks like this. For once, her lyrical intent is perfectly clear. “When I’m looking at the sunshine through falling rain / Now I know that there is peace of mind. My world without you in it wouldn’t be the same / I feel love that’s heaven-sent divine.” It’s yet another poignant moment in an album full of them. The record concludes with the plaintive “Far From Home”, a song that documents the devolution of a relationship, and the galloping “Valentine” with its hazy, blissfully drunken chorus of “La’s” and retro-leaning ‘80s synth postlude.
The Norwegian songstress who grew up in the forested seaside town of Grimstad, has come a long way from singing in church choirs, retirement homes, malls and bars. From studying drama in London and waitressing to make ends meet, to being featured on TV and film soundtracks, it’s readily apparent that Mr Little Jeans’ star is in the ascendant. These 12 intoxicating tracks herald the arrival of an artist whose immense talent contains both an indie credibility and an undeniable mainstream potential. Expect to see Monica Birkenes and her stellar little debut appear on multiple “best of” lists towards the end of the year.