When you think of Icelandic bands, slowly the main claim to fame of Björk and The Sugarcubes starts to recede in favor of newer groups like the ethereal Sigur Rós and also Mum. Two new bands added to the list are Trabant, a synth pop outfit who released its Moment of Truth debut album recently. The other band making slow headway is The Funerals, a band born out of boredom in Reykjavik in 2001. After performing songs such as “Pathetic Me” and “Unappreciative Man” to his girlfriend as a means to patch things up, lead singer Ragner Kjartansson’s girlfriend took the television and left him. Playing became a way to pass the time. Featuring some members of Trabant, this group’s alternative country style could be considered feeble at best and kitsch at worst. But after listening to the band’s debut album, Pathetic Me, one gets the feeling The Funerals are as dirge-like musically as anything evolving from the Southern United States. Lee Hazelwood and Johnny Cash are fair comparisons, but it’s the depth of the music that should please most listeners.
Starting things off with “Puppy Eyes”, lead singer Kjartansson could be eerily mistaken for a downtrodden Ryan Adams or even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy at his most longing. Sounding like brushes being used on the drum kit, the song has a soft and tenderhearted quality to it that many attempt but few succeed with. “You got puppy eyes on me,” Kjartansson sings over a subtle guitar and keyboard. With all of the songs performed in English, one might also expect a slight accent to dampen the tracks, but it’s nonexistent. The bare bones approach should also rekindle a passion in alternative country fans that too often see similar formats but with far less passion. It’s also a song that Nova Scotians The Guthries could adopt into its setlist. If there’s a slight annoyance, it is the song’s conclusion drawn out too long. The title track is more of an upbeat song in the vein of The Jayhawks and a tamed Gram Parsons. With a minimal arrangement that resembles The Cowboy Junkies, the song has a natural flow to it, despite possessing a feeling it may lead to something more grandiose.
The Funerals recorded the album on a two-track machine, which means the natural sounds of birds chirping on the brief “Theme for a Woman” weren’t contrived. “Mom” is a somber dirge with a beautiful duet featuring Lara Sveinsdottir. “Get out of bed / It’s dark outside / We eat breakfast” won’t exactly be etched in the listener’s minds for lyrical strength, but the way in which they’re performed will. Sounding as if the band’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the song is perhaps the album’s cornerstone. “I’m so tired of watching you cry / Watching you hurt” is repeated near the song’s conclusion and for once you seem to believe it. The Elka string machine here sounds like a keyboard, but adds an ethereal feeling as well. The urgency on “Saturday Friend” doesn’t pack the same punch, but is still quite solid regardless of the raspy, boisterous performance.
Lara Sveinsdottir sings lead vocals on “Rain & Snow”. Sveinsdottir resembles Margo Timmins doing Tori Amos. The brief lullaby also features a Casio organ. “Greatest Bar on Earth” has Thorgeir Gudmundsson singing lead. Having a much deeper voice in a style of The National’s lead singer or Leonard Cohen, the song appears to have more polish to it but results in less luster. It also becomes a bit too repetitive for its own good, often plodding along aimlessly for half of the song’s four minutes. “Teenagers” returns to a beaten and almost broken band, and is all the better for it. “They should look at me and feel afraid / He’s cooler than me they should think,” Sveinsdottir and Kjartansson sing before Sveinsdottir breaks into a jazzy and almost scat performance, a welcome surprise.
“Magazine” is a departure musically here, sounding like Hawksley Workman’s vocal theatrics. The Rheostatics are another fair comparison, but the song seems to stall from the onset. “Rich Bitch” is an angry rant about a bitter split as it slowly builds in its tension in a vein of an Americana Velvet Underground. Another nugget is “Unappreciative Man”, which clocks in at seven minutes but hits all the right spots at the right moments. Finishing with “The Power of Pathetic”, The Funerals have perfected the slow moving, slow paced surreal funeral anthems. “You can always turn that situation into a song,” the lyric goes, and here it certainly rings true. An album as bleak as it is beautiful. (PS: Kjartansson and his girlfriend reunited and are currently living happily ever after!)