[11 October 2009]
Wildbirds & Peacedrums is one of those surprising bands that will impress you but it won’t be immediately clear why they do. After all, a husband-wife duo made up primarily of vocals and drums seems more like something that would be happening with hippies on a Saturday visit to the park than in a studio. Unlike your local drum circle, though, the Swedish duo of Wildbirds & Peacedrums create surprisingly soulful and complex jazz-influenced pop music in a most unusual way. With the release of their second full-length The Snake, these Swedes are quickly proving why they deserve your attention.
Hailing from Sweden, Mariam Wallentin and her husband, percussionist Andreas Werliin, made nothing but a small splash stateside with their debut release Heartcore last year. For those lucky enough to be paying attention, their first full-length demonstrated the duo’s uncanny capacity to create technically-apt pop compositions with a fervent dynamism that was as much a nod to Bjork as it was to 1960s American jazz. This was most perfectly exhibited on the album’s single “Doubt/Hope”—a driving number featuring nothing but drums and Mariam’s vocals. That song most closely resembled a lo-fi demo version of “See-Line Man” by Nina Simone. Putting similarities aside though, Mariam Wallentin isn’t Sweden’s answer to Simone. Nor do she or her husband seem interested in achieving such a feat. If anything, Wallentin’s vocals are a mediocre impression of Simone’s and would be largely ignored if backed by traditional arrangements. However, with the arrival of the duo’s second full-length The Snake, it becomes immediately obvious that Wildbirds & Peacedrums is more interested in creating something of their own, rather than recreating something already done.
The Snake largely picks up with what the Heartcore single “Doubt/Hope” hinted at and better realizes its intentions. The song arrangements are subtly more complex but maintain their stripped-down sensibility. Where moments of Heartcore wandered and became repetitive, The Snake comes across as confidently focused, pulling from the duo’s greatest strengths: Wallentin’s impressionistic vocal stylings and Weliin’s capacity for paced drumbeats and sparse but tightly-composed arrangements. At moments, this causes The Snake to forgo accessibility in place of emotion and furious outbursts. Fortunately, the duo knows when to pull it back together and keep it approachable. The result, as featured on their second full-length, showcases the couple’s impressive ability to create memorable pop tunes with the most untraditional and unusual way of getting there.
This may be most exhibited on “Chains of Steel”, one of the poppiest tunes on the record. The first half of the song has Weliin sticking to a loose high-hat accompanied by a sparse xylophone. Wallentin holds her voice back and sings in an almost-whisper, allowing her pipes to increase in volume ever so slightly. The song maintains this formula with slight change until Weliin suddenly smacks the base-drum, allowing everything to come loose. Wallentin allows her emotions to overtake. Her tempered vocals suddenly become frantic, as she belts about a girl who “Rattles! Rattles! Rattles!” her. Despite its simplicity and the unusual elements, the song is surprisingly catchy and exhibits one reason why The Snake is so compelling. Such unusual demonstrations of their improbable ability to create highly-accessible songs through unusual means can be found throughout the album, on such tracks as the playfully upbeat “Liar Lion” or the album’s centerpiece “Places”, a hip-hop inspired track carried by nothing but drums and voice, similar to last year’s “Doubt/Hope”.
For every abnormal jazzy-pop number on The Snake, there exists a balanced companion track that focuses on exploring the textured sounds that really make Wildbirds & Peacedrums so unique. Opener “Island” begins with dark hums and howls backing Walletin’s slow, deep vocals, sounding like some ancient and forgotten ritualistic chant. While “Great Lines”, which begins tame enough with a repetitive and dramatic tribal march, it transforms itself with the sudden clinks of an autoharp and Wallentin’s passionately eerie outbursts. Despite not being readily accessible, these tracks stand on their own as intriguing compositions and only further showcase why The Snake is so impressive and why we can probably expect much more to come from these Swedish sweethearts.
Both artistically conscious and strikingly technical, Wildbirds and Peacedrums roll through The Snake with a sultry swagger that is equal parts peculiar pop-music and experimental street-jazz. With such sparse arrangements, there may come a time in the near future when this duo will run out of ideas and need to expand their production and, possibly, the size of their troupe. As for now, though, Wildbirds & Peacedrums has honed their distinctive mixture of primal emotionalism and imaginative arrangements with a magnetic dynamism that makes for one of the most captivating albums this year.