The lonely songwriter is kind of the Pinocchio of the music world, languishing in a dusty living room over an acoustic guitar, longing for the magic that will transform him or her into a real band. Or anyway, that’s how I picture it as the second of two guys-with-guitars, Dennis Crommett sneaks a glance at the racks of keyboards that Loney, Dear’s Emil Svanängen has amassed onstage, and confides, “I’m having fantasies about those keyboards,” and then hopefully, “Do you want to hear them?” We can only guess.
Tonight three songwriters are on the bill. All of them have started from a relatively solitary place, and two remain there. One of them, though, has escaped into a lavish full band sound, still evoking lonely tenor-trembling epiphanies but also traveling with a five-person band in tow, inflating those songs with soaring harmonies and pacing them with pounding, thudding drums and bass. That’s Loney, Dear’s Svanängen—a songwriter certainly, but one who has expanded and extended the category.
I arrive just as Aric Bieganek is finishing his set. He is a local songwriter, best known, it seems, for his children’s recordings. Tonight, however, he is playing nimble folk rock patterns on acoustic guitar and singing simple, striking versus about love and nature. “It’s not over,” he sings, throwing his head back, in the kind of bittersweet love song that is always about affairs that are over.
There is a longish break—how long, exactly, does it take to unplug one acoustic guitar and plug in another?—and Dennis Crommett steps up. He is also local, a veteran of well-respected area country pop bands like the Winterpills and Spanish for Hitchhiking. His voice is soft, but unexpectedly resonant, rather like Sam Beam or Richard Buckner, and his lyrics are steeped in natural imagery. “Swimming by the pond or in the river / We will find the fear is gone,” he whispers in one song. In another, he intimates the oranges and reds of a New England autumn, a third conjures up a nest of stinging hornets as a metaphor for skirted conflict. There is a rather fine song about a troubled Vietnam vet who gives Crommett his first guitar that asks plaintively, “Who will write this down after you go?” It is altogether fairly compelling, the soft voice, the intricate picking, the fleeting, striking images in the words. And yet, Crommett keeps stealing glances at those keyboards, doesn’t he?
Loney, Dear’s Emil Svanängen has long since made the transition from secluded laptop folk artist to full-fledged pop bandleader. Tonight is the first show of his American tour, and he has been up for 36 hours (a noisy fan kept him awake in the hotel room… a mechanical one, he explains ruefully, not the female kind). And still he is absurdly, self-deprecatingly cheerful, talking in lightly accented English to the crowd and quick bursts of Swedish to the band behind him.
Loney, Dear’s Dear John, out about a week at the time of the show, represents an evolution from its predecessor Loney, Noir, its sound denser, more rhythmic and driven. Live, this change becomes immediately apparent. The older songs are fragile and delicate. The ones from the new album buzz with bass and pound with drums. I begin to think that you could tell which album you were hearing just by looking at the drummer. Sticks on cymbals and snare? That’s Loney, Noir. Mallets on toms? Something from Dear John.
The new songs have a large-scale pop architecture. They are quite loud and celebratory. “This one may be a little too large for the room,” says Svanängen as he surveys an empty dance floor, a smattering of people at tables. But he and his band launch into “Everything Turns to You” with relish, Svanängen bounding up and down on his feet with its pummeling rhythm. “Summers”, also from the new album, is more serene, starting in a sampled swell of organ, with Svanängen’s voice a delicate falsetto. Yet even here, the bass is turned way up, building tension into an expansive pop daydream. And the album opener “Airport Surroundings”, is an all-out rocker—the beat that, on the record, is crisp and understated turns far heavier and more emphatic onstage.
Live, of course, Svanängen doesn’t have access to all the sounds that his records contain, the flutes, the brass, and the multi-voice harmonies. Still he does what he can. For “Harsh Words”, he enlists the audience to sing its wordless counterpoint. We do okay with the band, but lose faith on our own. By the end of the song, you can tell where the singing is supposed to come in because there’s a big gap, and Svanängen is laughing at our ineffectiveness, though not at all in a mean way.
“That was unexpectedly fun,” he says afterwards. “I would say ‘totally tubular’, since we have been collecting old 1980s expressions.” And everyone laughs, because when was that last time you heard someone say ‘totally tubular’ in a halting Swedish accent?
The main show finishes with “Sinister in a State of Hope” from the previous album, a wonderfully bittersweet melody that blossoms into fragile pop, and then Loney, Dear huddles in the small space next to the stage, not waiting too long for the audience to clap them back on. They finish with “I Am John”, also from the old album, also more delicate than the new material, but still dense with pop harmonies and instruments. Even stripped down, even without the big beat, we’re a long way from the lone guy with a guitar, fantasizing about keyboards.