I guess Figurines had something else in mind than what I’d envisaged, last year, when I
hoped they could be the band that captured the dirt and vitality of Copenhagen. The band’s spent a fair amount of time in New York over the past year, with a residency at a small downtown music venue. At the same time, they were recording their fourth album, When the Deer Wore Blue, in Chicago. Perhaps as a result, their new album sounds even less Scandinavian, and less distinctive.
Figurines is a Danish band whose third full-length, Skeleton, was an early almost-highlight of last year—flawed and at times derivative, but at its best, a thrilling exhibition of competent songwriting and catchy hooks. But instead of consolidating their emerging sensibility and building a solid, distinctive style, the band has lined up a whole slew of new influences from which to derive a different, more sedate sound. This time it’s Brian Wilson and his derivatives, all the way to modern indie popsters like Peter Bjorn & John and Albert Hammond, Jr. Part of it is just a shift in production values. When the Deer Wore Blue is fuller, smoother-sounding and less edgy than Skeleton, but the change also encompasses a deliberate reductionism in compositional style. No longer employing so many neat tricks to bring interest and inventiveness to their songs, Christian Hjelm and the other members of Figurines seem now more determined than ever to slot neatly into mainstream indie pop consciousness. And if the Gossip Girl soundtrack programmers are looking for new, relatively unknown bands to fill the credits with confluent-yet-slightly-edgier-than-Coldplay sounds, Figurines will be there with front row, hands straight up and eager expressions on their lovely Danish faces.
OK, it’s not as bad as that, of course. The Brian Wilson harmonies and slight tinges of psychedelic expansions in When the Deer Wore Blue are hardly a torture to listen to. It’s just that you could be justified in hoping for something more impassioned on the back of Skeleton’s promise. And some of their new songs do share the sludgy stomp of the better tracks from their previous album. First single “Hey, Girl” makes the most of its minimal hook. It’s less catchy than “The Wonder”, but shares a chug and angular melody. “Drunkard’s Dream” is even more cohesive, and perhaps the most successful song on the album: it’s a dark journey through swampy territory, relying on the low, echoing guitars to propel a steady, murky beat—an effective foil for Hjelm’s cracking voice, alternating between a tenor and falsetto ranges. But like a few songs off their previous albums the chorus doesn’t jump out with the instant gratification of a surefire hit, and it’s here where Figurine’s choice to turn more towards radio-friendly rock music has to be weighed up.
“Bee Dee” is a step in the right direction. Upbeat and warped, it’s got the right idea, though the pacing of the song is off as it’s interrupted by a slower section when it should chug with the insatiability of a Strokes song. A few songs on the album suffer from this problem. The truth is, the group’s best at creating these country-tinged Bayou stomps regardless of the immediate catchiness of the melodies. If they’re to maximize this potential they still have to embrace the murk and grit that Hjelm’s voice and the group’s jangly guitars promise.
Instead, Figurines are more interested in the softer side of things. “The Air We Breathe” marries a totally familiar, Brian Wilson melody with sedate, high guitar arpeggios and a stately piano section. It’s quite relaxed and pretty overall, but lacks emotional punch. So Figurines are kind of letting us down with When the Deer Wore Blue. Maybe we were expecting too much. Anyway, there’s still hope. The highlights of this new album are enough to indicate the band can continue to grow. Let’s just hope it’s in the right direction.