Bardi Johannson, the Stephen Merchant-esque Icelander behind atmospheric pop project Bang Gang, has the self-absorbed look of a supermodel and, one imagines, a similarly doe-eyed following. He traffics in that kind of ethereal, slightly psychedelic pop music that, for those who fall in love with it, becomes a kind of mantra of romanticism, soft repetitions of universal truth. The singer’s worked with Keren Ann, not only as a guest vocalist on his new record, but as a duo—the two recorded an album together in 2006 as Lady & Bird. Perhaps partly due to her profile at home, Bang Gang’s now received a fair amount of attention in France. In fact, these songs suit Ann’s similarly understated style. It may be that Johannson’s collision of dreamy atmospherics and bubblegum pop are particularly compelling in the context of France’s pop music landscape; for the rest of us, his looped sounds can seem a little overly reliant on atmosphere.
Following closely from his Find What You Get EP from last year (each of that disc’s four tracks appear on Something’s Wrong), this sophomore album is not so much an evolution as a well-recognized extension. The reason that all these songs sound so familiar is that their melodies are, more or less, permutations of each other. That and the fact that Johannson’s compositional method consists of repeating short two- or four-bar melodic ideas 20 or 30 times over the course of a song. Obviously the music’s what we’re meant to notice most, and what is supposed to transport us to some sort of desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The best Bang Gang songs are not only complete and successful in this programmatic intent, but could also be easily re-imagined as perfect fodder for remixing. The small thematic elements could easily be expanded into lush, attractive electronica—the Mylo reworking of Sia’s “Breathe Me” comes to mind. Opener “Inside” sounds like it could be a refrain from an Annie hit-of-the-year, but in some disembodied version, with Ester Talia Casey’s breathy voice oddly compelling as it sings, “Find me inside every heartbeat”. “It’s Alright” is all soft ethereality, hardly existing in the static air; the continuing loop of low strings and Rhodes piano creates and sustains this atmosphere perfectly. Occasionally, Johannson shows us he can increase the viscerality of his compositions. “Find What You Get”, when it finally builds to a climax of crashing guitar fuzz, thrills with Blonde Redhead’s strung-out power.
There are a few places where these slow songs fail to ignite. The splayed cymbal emphasis on “Contradictions” comes to seem slightly ridiculous after excessive repetitions, and the standard jazz elements—a short saxophone figure, tinkling piano—feel a little foreign to the music’s atmospheric heart. Bang Gang’s cover of “Stop! In the Name of Love”, the Supremes’ 1965 hit, is more tribute than reinterpretation, and as such it sticks out like a stylistic sore thumb from the rest of the disc’s material. It’s not bad; it’s just so clearly set apart from Johannson’s own songs that you have to wonder at the inclusion.
Johannsen does have something distinctive in Bang Gang. It may be a little glacial or a little repetitive for some listeners, but catch you in the right mood, and it’s difficult to deny the music’s soft power. “Look at the Sun” ends the album on a sweet, sad note—would you expect anything else?
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