Figurines: Skeleton

[7 March 2006]

By Dan Raper

In Denmark, unlike sterile Sweden or nature-obsessed Finland, there is an abundance of these things: dirt; cigarette butts; aluminium cans. Copenhagen is Scandinavia’s grimy heart, with all the fierce history but more of the city attitude. And of course Copenhagen is beautiful, all green bronze roofs, spiral-tailed dragons, narrow, leaning-in townhouses. I’ve been waiting for a band to capture that compelling duality of grime/transcendence - Figurines are just a shade away from being the one.

The young Danish four-piece released its debut LP Shake a Mountain in Europe in 2003, to (from what I can tell) somewhat qualified praise. There’s an obvious put-down can be unfairly leveled off-the-bat—that Figurines is nothing more than Modest Mouse re-tooled—but suffice to say the guitar/guitar/bass/drums combination is sufficiently familiar that Figurines’ Danishness isn’t thrust in your face, but sustained as something much subtler, and weirder.Skeleton is the band’s second album, which dropped DK-side in April last year, and is the first disc to garner US distribution.

Sound-wise Figurines are indeed reminiscent of Modest Mouse or Built to Spill, that classically indie pop sound of jangled guitars and unexpected rhythms. The vocals are reminiscent of Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug, who in turn resembles Isaac Brock; but Brock has more meat to his voice, a growling depth Figurines’ Christian Hjelm lacks. On Skeleton, this weedy yelp is so much of a focus that it makes the music seem hollow in the mid-range, ringing tinny and a little on-edge.

What the vocal technique masks, though, is solid songwriting skill. The melodies are deceptively simple, coming across as children’s rhymes or playground chants until you realize that’s a Schubertian modulation, and that these guys are more sophisticated than they let on. Consistently, the band sets tonics up inside-out, usually approaching the root from the periphery, so you’re not expecting the sudden drop into key. “All Night” demonstrates this perfectly: a well-constructed tune with the legs to sustain repetition, but on first listen alienating, as if it’s missing a punch line.

The best songs are pretty catchy in a college radio way. “Silver Pond”, released as a 7-inch together with lead single “Wonder” in the US last month, is pure pop-rock, with acoustic strummed guitars and a killer chorus. “Ambush” is a tight, creepy jangling stomp, all minor third/major third and unsettled vibe (the bass line sounds like “Hitch a Ride” from Nimrod). Quieter bookend “Release Me on the Floor” gets the desolation of city loneliness pitch-perfect.

There are a few experiments that end up working, and a few that don’t. “Ghost Towns” is unexpectedly country, with banjo-like strummed guitar and a too-obvious flourish in the chorus. The lyrics save it from tackiness, turned out all loss and tragedy—“I longed for the ghost town of July… your heart still belongs to the new guy”. But the experiments with rhythmic complexity often create confusion rather than subtlety: the chorus in “Wonder”, for instance, with its interjection of “time”, feels choked off midway through.
 
Ultimately, something about this album feels a bit slight. The middle section loses momentum and gets bogged down in exhibition of a “sound” over individual song quality. Maybe my conception of Copenhagen’s musical signature calls for more grit; maybe that’s a misconception. Hey, when I was there they were going crazy for “Walk on Water” and “Dance With the Devil”. But I’ll hold to this idea of mine; I’m sure there’s a band out there, someday, will capture the city’s complex filthy-pure appeal. Maybe in an album or two, with harsher bleat and sweeter desolation, it could be Figurines.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/figurines_skeleton/