El Perro Del Mar's self-titled album has its charms, especially in this expanded edition.
El Perro Del Mar has been a paradox from the start. Swedish in origin, its name means “The Dog of the Sea” in Spanish, an allusion to the wayfaring nature of these ethereal tunes. In truth, it’s the nom de plume of singer Sarah Assbring, a DIY artist whose apparent disregard for convention or, for that matter, ready engagement offers a certain similarity to those wistful sirens that lured unsuspecting sailors to doom via desire.
In a similar sense, Assbring’s precious posturing also offers a certain allure, what with its ache and ambiance and continuous emphasis on longing and desire. A waif-like presence, her melodies sway between the plaintive and the playful, but always manage to remain at arm’s length. “God knows I’ve been taking the love without giving it back,” she sings on “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)", one of the standout selections on her U.S. and UK debut, now reissued with a wealth of demos, unreleased tracks and rare live offerings. At least she’s aware, and in a sense, playful as well. Despite her forlorn persona, she’s also the gregarious type, a personality trait that surfaces, somewhat surprisingly, on the track called “Party”, which finds her decrying loneliness and isolation in favor of getting the gang together for the cause of celebration. "Bebop-a-lua,” she chants in a kind of nymph-like play on Gene Vincent’s signature song. Likewise, a chorus of “sha-la-la” punctuates its follow-up, the blithely titled “People”.
Still, for all the attempts to get in a groove, El Perro Del Mar is far too introspective to sustain any kind of gregarious get-together. Even a song like “Dog”, what with its snapping fingers and an imploring refrain that finds Assbring begging to be someone’s dog, seems vacuous and half-hearted. The mood is too amorphous, the singing too self-absorbed, the entire conceit too contrived and self-conscious to convey any real hint of commitment or conviction. Its acoustic version, included as the album coda, is far more compelling.
That’s not to say El Perro Del Mar doesn’t have its charms. On songs like “I Can’t Talk About It”, “This Loneliness” and “It’s All Good”, catchy choruses and ready refrains allow for instant engagement. The album is hypnotic in a very real way, its atmospheric arrangements enhancing the sublime, celestial effect. It’s also soothing in a sense, eerie and yet oddly beguiling all at the very same time. Fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos might be the ones most easily enticed, but those with an adventurous spirit might be equally inclined to check it out.
The heretofore unreleased material is especially interesting, presenting a pair of demos for songs (“In the Woods” and “An Eye for Gold”) that were apparently destined for the album but, for whatever reason, ultimately rejected. In terms of style, they would have made a fine fit, although it’s far more intriguing to hear the arrangements pared down to vocal and sparse instrumentation. Likewise, the three live tracks recorded for KEXP (“Candy”, “Party” and “This Loneliness”) are far more revealing and engaging than the original recorded versions, suggesting El Perro Del Mar, like those treacherous sirens, might be best enjoyed up close and personal.