The antiseptic rows of apartment buildings lining the streets of Stockholm illustrate a knack for synthesis, but the clean lines too easily overwhelm a lone woman leaving a bar on the sidewalk below. The curl of smoke from her cigarette begs to destroy the monotony. She walks like the genuine article. Like a cross between Diana Ross and Nico. At times, she gets it just right. At other times, she’s still too far removed from the nuts and bolts of it all. The Supremes sweat a lot of blood into the Detroit night. Nico hung with Lou on the streets of an unimaginably gritty Manhattan. This woman is a fan and she sings beautifully, but that can only take you so far.
On the opening track of the Concretes self-titled Astralwerks debut, a Phil Spector death rattle echoes behind a wall of Velvet Underground guitar drone while a breathy, mumbling siren chides an estranged lover. “Say Something New” is unabashedly gunning for an aesthetic, and while it doesn’t miss the mark, it does little to inform us as to the musical identity of the band in question. Who are these Swedes? As a band and a people they manufacture such beautiful things but tell us so little about themselves.
Whereas “Say Something New” re-creates the past directly, both “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Seems Fine” attempt to update the girl group sound with the feisty indie-rock guitars, horns, and hand claps most commonly found on a Beulah record. I checked it out, and Sweden has about 500 miles of West Coast. Put that together with the long polar evenings and it’s not hard to imagine a healthy dose of summer fun. As you might have guessed by the title “You Can’t Hurry Love” is one of two tracks on the album that pay tribute to Diana Ross. The other is simply titled “Diana Ross” and attempts to musically induce a “Love Hangover.” Its mix of staccato rhythms and boozy sway leaves you appropriately weary. All of this material is spirited, pleasant, and grounded in the context of rock history, but I’m still wondering who it is I’m listening to.
Matters aren’t helped by “New Friend.” It’s an obvious homage to/rewrite of the Velvet’s “Sunday Morning” complete with tambourine taps and pleasantly disinterested backing vocals. Unfortunately, the end of the album loses me entirely. The last three tracks continue to mix sultry female swagger, Motown orchestration and Velvet drone, but there is little connection between output and individual.
I would have given up long ago if it weren’t for a glimmer of hope found midway through the album. There are two tracks, back-to-back, that succeed outside the boundaries of influence. “Warm Night” has an aesthetic all its own. The nostalgic melody of combined keyboards, guitars and vocals conjures images of grainy film and long goodbyes. It’s a particularly European goodbye involving an unimaginably beautiful couple in the back of a lorry waving to their friends and family along the winding roads of the French countryside. The members of the Concretes are somewhere in that crowd watching the lovers disappear into the hills. I saw them, I know it. “Foreign Country” forgoes aesthetic and orchestration all together. Instead Victoria Bergsman’s voice is the star and she sings magnificently over an insistent piano line. It’s her without the encumbrance of history. But as quickly as they appeared, the Concretes are gone again, lost in the beautiful Swedish machine.