[8 August 2006]
Listen to Come Up for Air and consider this: the White Birch, the Norwegian band responsible for this serene, Nordic calm, used to be an industrial-goth band, and is even described by some critics with the -core suffix, as if that means anything. You may have to be a patient soul to fall in love with the White Birch’s new CD, Come Up for Air, but it’s certainly not anything-core. Minimal and serene, this record breathes with soft and organic life. Broadly speaking, you could describe the music as adult pop, but of a quality not usually heard in that genre—underneath its unassuming surface, the White Birch’s calm music reveals real beauty, a real reward.
All very calm, the role of drums minimal, Come Up for Air plays like a sedate chamber work. The sense of space in these songs recalls Sigur Ros—though the execution is very different—another band that rewards patience and repeated, engaged listens. Think of the music of Clogs made into pop, gorgeous round acres of sound that somehow communicate a profound sense of peace. Beneath it all cellos sway and sing, warming the coldest winter heart. An example—the inclusion of the low cello bass line, all long-held basso continuo, creates an ethereal sense of calm on “Storm Broken Tree”; not until later do you realize that with each repetition a new instrument is unobtrusively added, until the fragile falsetto vocal becomes a soulful adult-pop ballad.
“Seer Believer” opens with the aesthetic of Youth Group’s “Someone Else’s Dream”, but the vocals immediately establish this laid-back, minimalist pop sound; the song creates a strong classical underpinning with this chopped string figure in the background, before cutting out in the middle of a chorus. Unexpected tricks like this keep the material interesting on the second and third listen, rewarding patience. “Your Spain” catches attention immediately, vocals hitting with the blinking wonder of Jose Gonzalez, all chugging pop melancholy—and did I mention, absolutely gorgeous. The musical culmination of the album may be the outstanding “Stand Over Me”. Over a gorgeous, all-enveloping wash of sound that recalls Art of Fighting, Ola Fløttum’s thin baritone intones: “And if I fall, crumble at your feet / Stand over me”.
Fløttum’s voice is pretty like Jeff Buckley’s, but he’s careful to purposefully display its limitations. On “The White Birds”, his voice cracks in between each note, like a violin’s bow changing direction, and the intrusion of ugly sound becomes an integral part of the experience of listening; a hint that reality can’t be totally expressed in this warm, orchestral pop sound. The only song that doesn’t work completely is “The Astronaut”, and it’s due to another of the vocal experiments. He pushes his voice too low and it bottoms out, the resulting timbre wide and ugly without a true sense of pitch. As the melody rises in his register, the contrast to prettiness is maximized, true, but it’s a strange choice, and for thirty seconds or so it’s quite uncomfortable.
Rune Grammophon’s repackaging of the CD (which was originally released in Norway in November of last year) features artwork by Kim Hiorthøy, but the whole thing is so unobtrusive as to almost not exist. The song titles on the back cover are dark font on dark background; the CD, a perfectly plain pink. You can imagine this sound played up as new acoustic pop for discerning adults, splashy and overstated, but as it is, the disc retains its small-scale sense of calm and dignity.
And that’s ultimately the difference between the White Birch and a band like, oh, say, Coldplay. This modest band has recorded the compositions on Come Up for Air with a respect for the instrumentation and a compositional depth that, if you let it, could be transformative.