[5 July 2010]
Le Pop is not a new album. As a matter of fact, it has already been reviewed here at PopMatters in a manner that I fully and completely agree with.
Le Pop is not an innovative album. At least, it’s not technically so—there’s nothing to be found throughout the entire thing that can’t be traced back to another genre or style or band.
Le Pop is however a great album, and its American release (nearly two years after its release in the band’s native Norway) is cause to celebrate. This is a band getting its due outside its homeland, this is a deserved shot at international success for a band talented enough to actually deserve it. So they don’t write their own songs. So what? They play them, and they play the hell out of them. They play them until you believe them.
Whether you think that means anything or not, it will when you hear Le Pop. Take the fifth track, for example, a raucous thing called “Hey Ho On the Devil’s Back”. After first introducing us to a protagonist in a short, majestic little introduction, we’re thrown into a journey of poor choices borne of exhaustion and unfamiliarity. It’s a journey that’s one part Bonanza, one part Pirates of the Caribbean, one part bluegrass, and one part punk rock. With four-part harmonies. And a piano.
A little later, the title track is a two-and-a-half-minute bludgeoning that sounds like Devo playing carnival music interspersed with a little bit of ‘70s-style girl-group pop music. Of course, they namecheck The Cramps in this one.
Lying innocuously between the two aforementioned songs is a ballad, something that Sarah McLachlan might have composed in one of her ever-dwindling moments of divine inspiration. While the faster songs that surround it give off the impression of large barrels rolling down steep hills, “Wading in Deeper” is a moment of pure patience, a song marked not only by its eventual orchestral majesty but also by its willingness to breathe. By the time the four of them are singing in four-part harmony, the listener may well be singing along as well, as the melody is so simple, engrossing and appealing.
It is in that four-part harmony—not in that song in particular, but across the whole album—that the potential of Katzenjammer is realized. Rather than three “backup” singers supporting one lead singer, you get four strong singers belting out the notes with equal force and power. The effect is that of a wall of voices singing a waltz, a sea shanty, or a lovely ballad in perfect harmony over an equally impressive wall of instruments. Katzenjammer can do this because each of them has a voice that could potentially be singing the lead vocal, which all of them do at some point over the course of Le Pop, and not one sounds like she’s carrying (or dragging down) the rest. Sure, there’s a special place in my heart for the highly-affected, quirky performance of Marianne Sveen on “Demon Kitty Rag”, but I’d have a hard time arguing that it’s more or less technically proficient than any of the other performances on Le Pop.
It’s difficult to tell whether Le Pop actually has a chance of taking off with an American audience, simply because it’s just so difficult to classify. There’s enough of a free spirit to the music of Katzenjammer that it should appeal to an indie audience, but there’s not typically a market for polkas or gypsy music in that audience. It shares many thematic and instrumental traits with country music, but its near-punk tempos and gothic themes might put off that audience as well. It actually fits best in the realm of The Pogues and Dropkick Murphys, being to Norway something like what those bands are to Ireland, though a fairly limited and scattered Norwegian-American audience doesn’t exactly make such a classification a portent of success.
Even if there’s not much of a chance though, a band this talented still deserves that chance, along with whatever exposure an American release can grant. Katzenjammer has, at least, achieved that much.