[7 April 2009]
Cultural globalization spurred by the development of new media technologies like the Internet was the best thing to happen to Scandinavians since strawberry-bearded Beowulf slayed Grendel. Years could pass without a Scandinavian band ever getting a review in a major Anglophone publication, to say nothing of places on record shelves. Once it was represented almost exclusively by Abba. Now just look at the number of them charting and trendsetting. To name some: The Hives, the Raveonettes, Dungen, Peter, John & Bjorn, Jose Gonzales, Taken by Trees, Tobias Froberg, Sigur Ros, Lykke Li, Loney Dear, the Kings of Convenience, and the Shout Out Louds. I could go on. Add another promising Viking contribution: I Was a King.
The eponymous sophomore effort by Norwegian trio I Was a King continues frontman Frode Strømstad’s love affair with moderately psychedelic ‘90s indie-fuzz-pop and a dose of shoegaze, recalling Grandaddy, Mercury Rev, and My Bloody Valentine. In addition, a contagious guitar pattern emerges across several songs on this new album, apparently haunted by Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis. The modernist touchstone of newness need not bring condemnation of this album’s ambitions. Unlike a good deal of indie post-post-rock that’s gone atmospheric, ambient, wordless, African drummified, or has reworked ‘80s synth pop, I Was a King has a slightly traditional aura. The album proudly embraces ‘90s indie-pop movements as an unfinished project worthy of more attention. Judged on its own terms, the album succeeds. So if you’re looking for the next band who breaks ground by combining the oud with theramins, metal guitar, and calypso drums (which, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy contemplating), then stop reading now.
As with their first album, I Was a King’s second is lean, though far from mean. It clocks in at about 30 minutes. Nothing is overcooked. The songs never get tiring. While the entire album is infused with pop melodies galore, it also shows some stylistic variation. That variation comes from singer-songwriter-guitarist Strømstad’s imaginative uses of piano, strings, and horns on several songs, thanks to fellow Norwegian Emil Nikolaisen (Serena Maneesh) and special appearances by Sufjan Stevens, Daniel Smith (Danielson Famile), and Gary Olson (Ladybug Transistor).
I Was a King definitely have a penchant for psychedelia, manifest from the getgo track “Still,” which is more ‘60s Nuggets than the rest of the album. That song starts slow with whirring tripped-out guitars, discordant piano, and a reluctantly structuring snare, all of which gradually build into a tamer psych-pop infused with a rhythmic piano reminiscent of Springsteen’s E Street Band or the Hold Steady. “It’s All You” has a similar piano feel about it. “California”, “Fading Summer” and “Extra Number” are slow, steady fuzz-pop songs, most reminiscent of Grandaddy and Mercury Rev. “Not Like This” shows all the bursts and short halts mixed with blaring guitar solos made famous by Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis in ‘90s indie anthems like “Feel the Pain”. “Step Aside” and “Breathe” also make similar homage to Mascis-style guitar rhythms and guitar fuzz.
If the guitar in several songs is stamped by Mascis, so Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle haunts the kazoo-like vocal style of Strømstad. Moreover, not just the vocals, but also the guitars on many songs have a kazoo or cicada buzz about them. In “Golden Years” the cicadas sing to a steady stream of simple guitar and drum quarter notes. Layered on top is an intermittent guitar-generated siren’s whine that immediately recalls Yo la Tengo’s fabulous track “From a Motel 6”. “Hard Luck and Bad Years” is much closer to country-psych, slightly reminiscent of the Beechwood Sparks. “Stay Warm”‘s piano and string’ also have a twangy aura, but with horn sections. The extremely ingratiating “Norman Bleik” also has a hint of roots/alt-country rock to it, something like the Jayhawks meet (by the end of the song) Dinosaur Jr.
The lyrics are perhaps the most unremarkable part of the album. But then one might say that is also the pop side of it: straight-up love, loss, and dreams. The wordsmithing of Morrissey or the Old 97’s is a rare pop phenomenon. But neither are these “who put the bop in the bop shooh bop shooh bop?”-type lyrics. “We should know by now,” Strømstad kazoos in “Golden Years,” “that the golden years were spent in this town.” Indeed, and “this town” is called “the ‘90s.” Love it or leave it.