Breaking into the American music market from overseas is hardly an enviable task. Not only are American and European tastes distinctly different, but some acts may already have an established following, and thus the album that is slated for an American “debut” often loses context with group’s larger body of work when left on its own. Howl Howl Gaff Gaff certainly isn’t a “new” album. The disc first appeared in Scandinavian music stores in 2003 as an independent release on Bud Fox. Now, two years later with a newly inked deal to Capitol, the Shout Out Louds are ready to bring their brand of drowsy garage pop to the other side of the ocean. In a wise move, the band has slightly rejigged the tracklisting for Howl Howl Gaff Gaff to include songs from all of their assorted Scandinavian releases. Thus, the American version of the album serves not only as a debut, but a working best-of compilation of the group’s material to date.
Though the group hails from Sweden, it ain’t no retro rock act. The Shout Out Louds’ shaggy Velvet Underground-inspired stomps are embellished with strings, xylophones, and synths, and the result has more in common with Belle & Sebastian and (dare I say it) the Arcade Fire than anything from the mean streets of New York. The disc starts with a series of bloops that recall the starting light signals of the Sega video game Hang On (and with that I’ve officially confirmed my nerd status). These few seemingly innocuous notes segway beautifully into the opening of “The Comeback”. Equally powered by a Strokes-esque rhythm guitar and a swooping synth line, it serves as a guiding light for the rest of the disc. Heartbreak is the main course of the day, and the Shout Out Louds have it in spades.
If the Shout Out Louds break into something huge, it will be because of the disc’s second song, “Very Loud”. Already touted by Rolling Stone as a must for iPod hipsters, the song’s marching band percussion, accordion whooshes, and soaring choruses that nearly reach the heavens find the Shout Out Louds at their best. The album wallows in sorrow, but never does it give up hope. “Oh, Sweetheart” finds its narrator no longer listening to the advice of his friends and trying to win back his lover. “Please Please Please” is naked in its emotion (what else could the song be about but pleading for a lover to come back?), but succeeds because of its sincerity. What keeps these songs on the side of hope are the Shout Out Louds’ penchant for penning catchy hooks, and wonderfully rounded-out instrumental arrangements. Unless you actually listen to the lyrics, you’d be hard pressed to find a more buoyant number than “Oh, Sweetheart” with its chorus of punchy strings, a well placed wash of synth, and call-and-response vocals. In the final act of “Please Please Please”, xylophone and synths coalesce into the song’s pulsing rhythm in a stunning, fired-up finale. Even the vague lyrics and dispirited atmosphere of “A Track and a Train” rise to a beautiful crescendo with tambourines and xylophones finding their way through the fog. If the Shout Out Louds’ hearts are breaking, they’re not going down without a fight.
But the Shout Out Louds aren’t all melancholy, and choose two of their most upbeat and unbelievably catchy songs to help close out the album. “Hurry Up Let’s Go”, with its handclap intro reminiscent of the Shins’ “Kissing the Lipless” is all Modern Lovers chord progressions and Lucksmiths sunshine. “Love is all we got” is the song’s credo, and goddamn if you don’t believe it yourself at the end of the song’s two-minute running time. “Shut Your Eyes” swells until nearly bursting as overlapping keyboard and guitar lines whirl and pirouette gracefully in and out of the song. The effect is wonderfully dizzying and instantly danceable. In case it hasn’t been apparent until now, the Shout Out Louds’ sophisticated arrangements and broad musical palette is simply awe-inspiring.
As the disc comes to a close, the only question listeners will have is: “What next?” Howl Howl Gaff Gaff contains songs that are at least two years old, and the American version of the disc has set the bar high for the Shout Out Louds’ next effort. Conversely, though these songs are only hitting American ears now, they remain as vital and fresh as they were when first released. It is with a certain amount of wonder that I anticipate where the Shout Out Louds will go next. Will they abandon their pop leanings and indulge in the darker corners of their songwriting or continue to delicately balance the two? For now, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff‘s exuberant sadness will be the soundtrack to my summer. And for anyone who is still in doubt, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff is simply one of the strongest debuts—and best albums—I’ve heard so far this year.