Comforting ballads of the American West from a group of accomplished Swedish musicians (who else?)
"Union Falls", the best song off Amandine's 2006 EP, Leave Out the Sad Parts, thrills and cracks with broken country grandeur. In the chorus --"our frail union falls apart" -- the Swedish group finds that rare blend of melody and feeling that sticks, fast. Nothing on the group's sophomore LP, Solace in Sore Hands, is as immediate as that song, but the album's at least got a consistent outlook: desolation with soft folk overtones of the American West rule the day here.
The press materials for Solace in Sore Hands advise us that the lyrical and emotional content is informed by the modern Swedish authors Sara Lidman, Torgny Lindgren, and Lotta Lotass and their thematic portrayals of hardship and stoicism. Have to confess, my Goodreads bookshelf doesn't contain any of those authors, but I'll take their word for it, because there is something literary about the constructed world of Amandine's songs. It's not unique, and it's not immediately obvious, but in these gentle compositions is a layered quality that points to a considered, referential quality. It's nothing like the novelistic quality of Sufjan Stevens, but Amandine convey the sense that their songs are about something, even if you're not always sure that that is.
"Silver Bells", for example, trills in its first chorus, "Honey, distance brings us closer / Honey, hardship makes us stronger". The next time it comes around, the statement's converted into a question -- "Who says distance brings us closer?" -- and the poignant, accordion-driven ballad effectively conveys the passage of time and its accompanying doubt. These are the melodies Amandine traffics in: introspection, sometimes depressive, with a meandering melodic construction that communicates space, that proceeds on its own leisurely time.
The band's best songs shine with small-scale wonders. "Chores of the Heart" expands the palette of the record, its crashing guitars a healthy outlet for catharsis; the chorus heads up, and up, rising to a plaintive melody. "Inside" is like a disembodied Annie song -- "Find me inside every heartbeat" -- the warm strings and sparse keyboards perfect fodder for some indie remix hit of the year, like Sia's "Breathe Me". And though over the course of the disc, the Americanisms of the music come to seem a little affected, "Better Soil" gets it right. The piano accompaniment opens to a comforting, shrugging ballad, and the central conceit, "I could come to be a grain of sand", just works.
The plucked banjo and guitar sounds on Solace in Sore Hands are not really country, because the pitching is too fragile, too breaking-point; and the instrumentation, most of the time, thankfully lacks that characteristic jangle. Still, a number of songs seem to just float by -- the choruses on "Iron Wings", "Secrets" and so on are pleasant enough, but fail to catch fire. "Shadow of Grief" has a pretty, plaintive folk-violin melody, but the songwriting's so conventional (drop texture in verse, rekindle chorus) we're left wishing for a bit more excitement.
Amandine still have something, some spark that reaches strong to the listener and says, "We matter". But they've yet to reach the level of sophistication of an artist like Adem, the kind of intimate yet powerful folk voice to which they aspire. Solace in Sore Hands is good, but I think Amandine can do even better.