Bjorn Yttling’s been busy over the past few months. Direct from his skyrocketed fame in Peter Bjorn & John, through producing the Shout Out Louds’ latest CD, and now here he is again, taking up production duties for Taken by Trees’ debut, Open Field. You may know Taken by Trees without really knowing them, because it’s actually the project of Victoria Bergsman, the former lead of the Concretes and the female voice of “Young Folks”. It’s the latter, mostly, that informs Open Field—though even that connection’s more theoretical than from any great similarity of sound. But with PB&J’s John laying down marimba and vibraphone, and Bjorn on strings (and taking care of the arrangements), it feels like something of a family affair.
But the shared playing’s about as far as the comparison goes, because Bergsman’s music turns out quite different from either PB&J’s sunny pop or the Concretes’ ‘60s-revivalism. Think minimal guitar arpeggios, perpetual ostinato figures in piano or strings, the occasional instrumental flourish, and an encompassing sense of space. These spare, folk-pop arrangements rely on repetition in the same way as Jose Gonzalez, riding a wave of beauty in simplicity. “Cedar Trees”, the most expansive track on the 10-song album, opens with a simple question, “Will you be my friend / Even though love came to an end? / You don’t have to decide just yet”, and sways onward in this timeless, utterly encompassing place. “Sunshine Lady” shows Bergsman’s folk leanings, telling the story of an encounter with a strange woman over a tinny toy guitar accompaniment.
If there’s one hangover from her 11 years at the helm of the Concretes, it’s a certain way of constructing a song—looped refrain, minimal melody—and it pops up on a few songs on Open Field. On “Lost and Found”, musically the fullest track on the album, this also translates into a more personal exposition of emotion: rather than the discursive, symbolic narratives that pepper Open Field, here when Bergsman sings “I’m lovesick”, we believe it.
In general, the songs are rather short, a limitation of the fact that they’re built up from small repetitions. There’s only so often you can repeat a two- or three-note phrase before it becomes played out. On “Too Young”, for example, the four-and-a-half minute length is enough to pack in a full Bergsman musical idea, followed by an extended reverie of piano swirls. The simplicity’s generally winning, but occasionally you wish for some more musical development.
Bergsman has written that this album was meant “to see how [her] voice can stand almost alone,” and this intention obviously informs the album’s skeletal production values. In fact, Eriksson’s tapping percussion does a good job of further showcasing the vocal melodies, too. But truthfully, we don’t really need stripped-down arrangements and a cappella passages to know that Bergsman’s voice is special—this smoky, fragile/strong, entirely distinctive thing. And without a strong sense of emotion running through much of the material here, we’re sometimes left to marvel at the voice’s quality without making a deeper connection.
But this isn’t too much of a barrier to entering Bergsman’s bewitching world. Her unique voice carries Taken by Trees, and even if there’s at times little else, she sings cracking, personal beauty and occasional breaking emotion with the same fade. Open Field is the kind of debut album that, while not perfect, if it finds you in the right mood won’t let you go. File it away for a silent Sunday morning, or those times when you’re through with Jose Gonzalez. Bergsman’s found something real here.
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// Notes from the Road
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