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by:Larm 2009: Hot Music from the Frost-Bitten North

Kevin Pearson
Dog and Pony Show

Pony the Pirate

If the word to sum up Captain Credible was kooky, perplexing is the best word to describe Pony the Pirate. How could a seven-piece band featuring trumpet, sax, and steel guitar, sound like England’s spiky and stuttering Futureheads? It doesn’t make sense and left me scratching my head while I should have been taking notes. They fared better when they realized the arsenal of musical weapons at their disposal and attacked their songs with Arcade Fire-like zeal, actually making the number of band members on stage work in their favor. If they can figure out what they want to be, Pony and the Pirate could be a band to keep tabs on.

The Shitsez

Some other bands I will be keeping an eye on due to their by:Larm performances included the Shitsez, Fjorden Baby!, and Rockettothesky. Like an amalgamation of the Go! Team, Santogold, and Toni Basil circa “Mickey”, the Shitsez, playing only their second live show, were a hyper kinetic act that got better as their set wore on. Mixing elements of ‘80s pop into their musical mix (which they have dubbed cheerleader rock) and sounding, at times, like Tiffany on steroids, the Shitsez offered up the shortest set of by:Larm, but also one of the best.

Fjorden Baby!

Like the Shitsez, who bounded onstage in prime '80s gear, perhaps Fjorden Baby!’s clothing should have given them away as well. The singer wore a long, white KLF T-shirt, the group’s guitarist climbed onstage in a red, gold, and green vest, while the drummer wore a Nerves T-shirt. These influences seeped into their set, along with elements of Madchester, Krautock, ska, reggae, and dub, for a mongrel-like musical mix that was as mesmerizing as it was perplexing. And while it wasn’t perfect, this five-piece band (who released their debut album last October) managed to funnel it all through an energetic performance that pegged them as one of by:Larm’s premier bands, even if their sound is difficult to pin down.


Not as difficult to pin down were Rockettothesky -- essentially a solo project for the bobbed and platinum blond Jenny Hval -- who sounded like perfect 4AD fodder. A minimalist mix of Mazzy Star, Galaxy 500, and the Cocteau Twins, Hval -- backed here by two auxiliary musicians – mixes folk and electronica with plenty of effects pedals to create a ghostly sound that throbs and flows in equal measure. The first time I saw Rockettotthesky, they were playing the claustrophobic confines of Oslo Kongressenter’s Mesaninen. The place was so packed that space could only be found in a stairwell or balcony, and the fact that both of these areas were six/seven people deep made it impossible to really hear anything, especially with all the chattering. Despite all these obstacles, they still managed to impress, so much so that I sought them out again later on in the weekend, fought my way to the front, and was not disappointed.

Einar Stray

Unfortunately, at any festival the law of averages indicates that there are bound to be disappointments. I had high hopes for Einar Stray and his delicate take on chamber pop, yet I was initially disappointed in his short set, which, like the Oslo weather, left me cold. Stray’s tender songs -- backed by a six-piece band that included cello, violin, and a backing singer -- came off as too clever, too intricate, and too over-thought. Looking like Thom Yorke circa Pablo Honey, Stray lulled me to sleep with his subpar Sufjan Stevens impression. And then he played “Arrows” and it was a minor musical revelation, all militaristic drums and Sigur Rós atmospherics, soaring strings, and slowly accumulating vocals. It was moments like this that will make me keep an eye on Stray’s career, but it was hard to reconcile a set full of duds with this one sublime gem.

My Little Pony

Pop quiz: What would you expect a band called My Little Pony to sound like: Cute, twee, boy/girl vocals, glockenspiel, xylophones, air melodica, vintage dresses, acoustic guitar? Correct on all accounts. Okay, so the music was nowhere near as trite as their name suggests, and the country-ish tint to their songs toned down the twee side of things just enough to make them more than tolerable, but there was something lacking throughout their set that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s because, despite playing 80-plus shows since forming two years ago, My Little Pony still sound better on record than on stage. Perhaps another 80 shows will rectify this situation.

Norma Sass

“I was born in the ‘80s sang Norma Sass’ vocalist, Thea Glenton Raknes, and by the looks of it, so was the rest of the band… probably the late ‘80s as well. This young, female-filled five-piece are an obvious work in progress, a musical science project still figuring out which elements work well together. The effort and enthusiasm is there, though, and if the band can continue to write songs in a similar vein to the New Wave-y “Japan”, with its wonderful four-part harmonies and catchy melody, the band might meld into a proficient indie/pop band.

Under Dogs International

The Captain & Me

On paper, the prospect of Under Dogs International, an Oslo-based world music group fusing Balkan music with jazz and Latin/African rhythms, piqued my interest, but in person they were slightly perfunctory and devoid of any pep that would peg them as essential. The problem, it seemed, was the depth of their influence, not the influences themselves. Like a fusion restaurant that likes to meld too many disparate ingredients, I left the show satisfied but with a weird taste in my mouth. Fortunately, The Captain & Me washed away this weird world music aftertaste. Also utilizing Balkan influences, but fusing them with folk and country affectations, the Captain and Me were a musical melting pot, even pulling out what looked like a lute for one song. Technically a duo, here the group was nine-strong, which was all well and good considering the amount of instruments on stage with them.

Freddy & the Casuals

It was surprises such as Captain and Me’s vast instrumental range that helped several bands stand out when I expected very little. I never figured out which one was Freddy in Freddy & the Casuals, which is possibly due to the band’s 14-strong collection. A mish mash of high school band, old people, rap, samba, and tropicalia, Freddy and the Casuals utilized a four-piece horn section, three backing singers, three separate percussive players, plus the usual guitar, bass, drums setup, and topped it all off with two rapping front men. They drenched the tent in a party atmosphere with choreographed dancing and a set of songs that swung and swayed and, most importantly, signified that everyone should have a good time despite the late hour.

John Olav Nilsen

Erlend Øy, possibly Norway’s most famous recent musical export (Kings of Convenience / The Whitest Boy Alive) called John Olav Nilsen the most important songwriter in Bergen. I have never been to this coastal town that sits on Norway’s western shore, so can’t really grasp the gravity of this statement (though I do know Bergen has long been described as a musical hotspot), but at by:Larm, Nilsen and his seven-piece backing band certainly put themselves forward as one of the festival’s best live acts. While the songwriting side of things was slightly lost on me (they were all in Norwegian), it was hard to fault the group’s effort or energy, coming across, as they did, like the Hold Steady if they had been influenced by Mod, mid-‘70s English rock, and soccer sing-alongs.

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