[6 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Up until now, Dungen has largely been known as the baby of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes, despite the fact that the band has been performing and recording together as a unit for years. In fact, the last two albums, 2008’s 4 and 2006’s Tio Bitar, even went so far as to declare guitarist Reine Fiske, bassist Matthias Gustavsson, and drummer Johan Holmegard as “contributory musicians” in rather chilly fashion. On Dungen’s fifth album, however, all that appears to have changed, as it makes a point of giving all four musicians equal billing on the back of the album cover and features a photo collage of the band inside, practically declaring to all that, yes, we can officially call Dungen a proper band now.
As it would happen, that’s pretty much the biggest surprise listeners get from Skit I Allt, as Dungen continues to reliably churn out much of the same jazz-tinged psychedelic folk/progressive rock that they’ve doing for the past decade, each album evolving gracefully enough to ease audiences into new, subtle stylistic shifts. While the electric side of the band remains an integral part of Dungen’s appeal, with lead guitar ace Fiske being a big reason, Ejstes has been slowly steering the band more and more towards quieter sounds. Save for the odd blast of electric jamming, 4 was so piano-driven and easygoing it bordered on soft rock. Skit I Allt, on the other hand, offers a much richer balance of sounds, and although the band’s touch remains soft and understated, the overall mood conveyed in the music (as usual, Ejstes sings exclusively in Swedish) is one bordering on ebullience, something we haven’t heard from the band since Tio Bitar four years ago.
The upbeat mood of the record makes it a much more immediately gratifying listen. The gently insistent “Brallor” sees the band playing to all its strengths, Ejstes adding layers of piano and organ, Fiske letting loose distorted leads reminiscent of Ron Asheton, the song gradually building to a wonderful crescendo, and guest vocalist Anna Jarvinen lending her lovely, Harriett Wheeler-esque voice to the tune. Rock and jazz commingle effectively on “Vara Snabb”, as Ejstes’s flute melody is offset by Fiske’s robust rhythm playing. Handclaps give “Min Enda Van” an exuberant yet intimate vibe, while “Blandband” is far from what non-Swedish speakers might imply from the title, with a lively piano melody driving the instrumental, and Holmegard’s sprightly shuffling snare and tom fills helping make the instrumental track positively shimmer with life.
As good as Dungen is at capturing that mellow retro feel on record—dated as it is, that flute is damn near irresistible—they absolutely excel when they turn the volume up. The title track is easily the most straightforward song on the album, a simple, rigid, mid-tempo beat rigidly anchoring Ejstes’s layered vocal melodies and Fiske’s pretty central hook. “Barnen Undrar” is more adventurous, Fiske doubling on bass and guitar, providing a nimble bassline while letting loose graceful, expressive solos all throughout the song. “Hogdalstoppen”, meanwhile, gives listeners a tantalizing glimpse at how great this band still is at creating a massive-sounding rock jam in the vein of early Can, the only disappointment being that the song had to end rather than going all out and taking up an entire side of an album.
Ejstes and Dungen seem clearly happy with not bothering to recapture the furious energy of their North American breakthrough, Ta Det Lugnt, despite the fact that many people insist that record was the band’s high water mark. It was a much braver move to take the road less traveled on the last three albums, and for those who have stuck with the band since 2004, hearing that graceful musical evolution has been a rewarding experience, with Skit I Allt giving listeners the impression that they can easily make this sound last another decade without ever feeling stale.