Cowboy in Sweden
First Aid Kit at Mono was such a show; the BBC allegedly left waiting outside unable to gain access despite the fact that they were supposed to record the duo’s set. Fortunately, I was there early enough to secure a space, though not one with good sight lines. No matter. The only thing you need for First Aid Kit -– two Swedish sisters aged 15 and 17 –- is a set of ears. Far and away the best show at by:Larm, First Aid Kit were sparse and minimalist – just two voices plus acoustic guitar and, on occasion, keys or autoharp – yet the siblings, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, fill their songs with an intense amount of emotion. So much so, that you could actually feel the music seeping into your skin. Mixing robust originals with a few covers –- Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” plus “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Man in Black” –- the duo showcased a musical maturity that belied their young age. Simple but powerful, their songs packed an emotional punch I haven’t been privy to in a live musical setting for some time. Drawing on a backwoods-y blend of country and folk, their short set worked best when both sisters sang, their voices intertwining and complementing, coercing and coaxing. I see them the following day at the larger Dagbladet tent during the daytime, and while the harmonies were still in place, Mono’s intimate setting added an extra layer of musical allure. Like the different colored houses that dot the pastel streets of Oslo, First Aid Kit used a pleasing pallet of well-worn musical hues to create a simple sound that was crisp, classic, and captivating. At Mono, the packed and jubilant crowd called for an encore, but the strict timeline of the festival format curtailed our calls. It was unfortunate as First Aid Kit -- more than anyone else I heard all weekend -– definitely deserved it.
First Aid Kit
Continuing the country/folk trend, Jens Carelius and his four-piece backing band played a strikingly poised set that flitted between sounding like Nick Drake if he’d grown up playing the blues, and a less urgent Okkervil River. Bearded but fresh faced, kind of like Fleet Foxes, Carelius started off solo, with intricately intimate fingerpicking. It took one and half songs for the rest of the band to chime in, and when they did it was with a thud of jazzy percussion and shimmering guitar. As the set drew on -- and Carelius swapped his seated, acoustic position for an electric guitar -- a smidgen of Bob Dylan began to emerge as well. A trumpet intermingled with many of the songs, which, like “Faces Leaving on a Train”, swung from smoke-y jazz to blues to country, all tied together by Carleius’ deft voice and simple yet stunning songwriting ability.
Simple yet stunning songwriting ability is a term that also applies to Tor Konstalij, whose stage was actually an auditorium floor that made him seem like a professor and I guess he was... kind of. As we sat in lecture-like seats with foldaway desks (perfect for note taking!), Konstalij gave us all a quick lesson in folk and blues, albeit it a variation of these genres filtered through Tom Waits’ off-kilter approach to songwriting. Like many other artists, Konstalij sang in an affected English accent, but talked between songs in his native Norwegian, meaning that many of his jokes (I assumed they were jokes – people were laughing) were lost on me. Fortunately, the music was not. Cutting a lonely figure on stage, and seemingly in song as well, Konstalij was a commanding solo artist trading in old musical commodities with an affable ease. Ingunn Ringvold, aka Sailorine, also displayed a similar amicability as she sauntered onto Mono’s tiny stage to get Friday night’s festivities underway with an Americana-tinged set that sounded more Nashville than Norway. Backed by a three-piece band, Ringvold -- who is also a member of the Mark Olsen Trio (she’s currently the opening act for Olsen’s US tour with his former Jayhawks partner, Gary Louris) -- added hints of bluegrass instrumentation into the mix, making her sound more traditional than many American country artists. Unfortunately, the set lacked a certain amount of musical differentiation, making it a pleasant way to pass 30 minutes if not essential listening.
The New Wine
While the country and folk bands were, for the most part, pretty good, it was the groups that dabbled in electronics and the dance-punk-pop mix that wavered. In fact it was this fairly new amalgamation of sounds that actually seemed dated, not the archaic country or folk sounds. The New Wine -- a four-piece hailing from Norway’s other musical hotspot, Bergen -- are purveyors of the dance-punk sound, but sounded perfunctory in their execution of the genre’s musical staples. Utilizing the softer end of this genre’s spectrum, they recalled the poppier exploits of groups such as Phoenix. The New Wine were short on definable hooks and the hooks that were there were unfortunately pretty weak. While the New Wine were bland, Small, an incredibly young-looking Danish quartet, were sheepish, but showed promise. Much like M83’s synth-driven pop, Small balanced their sound on the precipice of rock and electronics, utilizing a retina-burning light show to overcome some obvious shyness. I Was a Teenage Satan Worshipper fared better though, with a fierce set of Faint-like songs that was hindered by technical glitches and a noisy, packed bar. Despite these obstacles, the Finish group were energetic and frenetic and made songs such as the punky and poppy “Art School Creeps” sound nowhere near as trite or teenage-lite as the titles may suggest.
Also not trite nor light were the Finish trio K-X-P, who, despite a Goonies T-shirt-clad drummer and a fretless bass, powered there their way through a pulsating set of driving songs that mixed Krautrock, techno, and industrial influences with harsh lighting and even harsher vocals. Despite their repetitive musical nature, K-X-P, who also serve as Annie’s backing band, were rousing and heavier than any metal I saw over the weekend.
Unlike K-X-P, who I continued to listen to post-festival, some music is meant purely for a live setting and unfortunately loses its meaning on record. Captain Credible, plays this type of music. With a mass of equipment on stage – including a wired motorcycle helmet, a drumstick wielding doll, and old school Nintendo game pads – Captain Credible huddled behind his electronic mountain coaxing out a series of squelching 8-bit riffs, rhythmic tumbles, and vocodered vocals. He’s a little like Dan Deacon minus the musicianship and games. Live, it’s passable as a spectacle -- the manic, speed-induced music mixed in with a narrative arc that runs from comical to course. On record, however, it’s all slightly annoying, which is a shame as everyone should see this kooky Captain at least once.