The Swedish pop scene has produced a number of groups who sing in English and have enjoyed some recognition in America. Earlier in the 00s, many of these groups played sweet, honest guitar-pop that easily fit into the indie scene – the Shout Out Louds, the Perishers, and the Radio Dept. By the middle of the decade, the exported Swedish sound began to diversify and electronics became more prominent. The second album from the Radio Dept. was largely electronic; Robyn released thumping dance tunes; Air France put together electro-disco; the Knife released darker synthesizer compositions. More eclectic groups like the Tough Alliance, Lykke Li, and jj sprouted up as well. I Break Horses, comprised of Frederik Balck and Maria Linden, formed near the end of the 00s in Sweden’s capital, Stockolm. They released their debut album, entitled Hearts, in 2011 — it splits the difference between the more guitar-oriented and electronic ends of Sweden’s English-pop spectrum.
I Break Horses often start their songs slowly, with a simple guitar melody or a basic progression on the synthesizer. There is usually a second keyboard playing more atmospherically, holding single notes for long periods before they change. The songs gain power as they go, building in percussion in layers – bass drums coming in first, some sharper percussion joining them later. Everything might burst in explosions of whirring keyboards and distortion, or just simmer continuously without ever quite reaching an apex. Often the percussion and most of the instrumentation stop momentarily to give the vocals a chance to fill the breadth of the tune. The lyrics can be unintelligible, but it doesn’t matter: It’s the tone and pitch that delivers the message. The vocals are multi-tracked and female, low and smooth. Syllables are dragged out; there are a lot of wordless “whoa-ohs”. As the music explodes, the vocals never do much more than coo louder. They feel calm, a bit melancholy but a bit hopeful, woozy, languorous.
Hearts is most moving when the languor is working against frantic, powerful instrumentation. Opener “Winter Beats” starts with repeating synth progression that runs through the whole song. A few minutes in, the song takes a breath before coming fully into its own, a whirlwind of drums and electronics and fuzzy guitar or bass, low in the mix. It’s hard not to be swept up. Sometimes, though, when the band throws the whole kitchen sink into the song, it begins to sound like background noise, like a wild construction company down the block. “Pulse” works to prevent this, giving the instruments and vocals plenty of space. Each element sounds precise and effective, and there isn’t the same sort of pile-up that ends many of the songs on the album.
I Break Horses works with both of Sweden’s musical specialties — guitar-pop and electronics. Their debut doesn’t break any new ground, or point to any new developments in Swedish pop, but it’s a solid effort from a country producing more and more talented musicians.