Sarah Assbring injects her trademark Brill Building aesthetic with a traditional Eastern flair on KoKoro, arriving at a sound that is both startlingly unique and warmly familiar
Since her eponymous 2006 debut, Sarah Assbring of El Perro Del Mar has garnered widespread acclaim for a sound that mines some of the most hallowed elements of early American pop: Wall of Sound production, Motown polish, sugary melodies indebted to '60s girl groups, and layered harmonies so immaculately arranged that Brian Wilson seems less like an influence than a spectral mentor guiding her every move. For this reason, she's usually lumped together with other twee-pop practitioners whose songs hug the border between candy-coated indie and full-fledged retro homage, acts like Camera Obscura, Sambassadeur, and the whole subgenre's graying godparent, Belle & Sebastian.
While this category has its flaws, it's been a fecund breeding ground for some near-unimpeachable pop confections, and Assbring has been responsible for her fair share. "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)", for instance, is a slice of sheer Bacharachian whimsy; with a title winking at The Beach Boys' masterpiece "God Only Knows", it's a track that seems to conceal a deep, all-consuming sadness beneath its bouncy melodic veneer. But on KoKoro, her first proper studio release since 2012's Pale Fire, this thoroughgoing interest in pop's American essence gets a spin. Drawing from the sonic palettes of various Asian countries, ranging from Thailand to India and China, she injects her trademark Brill Building aesthetic with a traditional Eastern flair to arrive at a sound that is both startlingly unique and warmly familiar.
For Assbring, this cosmopolitan emphasis was less about incorporating one specific socio-ethnic style and more about bringing a new level of accessibility to her music. "In a time that seems to go backwards humanistically and morally... I realized I wanted to make a borderless album that belongs nowhere but has a universal voice and a universal heart," she said. This heart beats just beneath the surface of KoKoro's first single "Breadandbutter", a hyperactive East-meets-West flourish of hopscotching Chinese strings, booming drums, ripples of reverb, and various sonic odds and ends that seem to manifest out of nowhere only to return back to the song's inner fabric. "We all come for the bread and butter / Bread and butter", she sings, the syllables slipping off her tongue so quickly that they fall into an uncanny valley between English and some foreign dialect, and even though her call for multicultural solidarity reads like a sappy contrivance, it sounds like an ego-obliterating incantation, one that if repeated enough could bring the singer into contact with some primordial hunger.
This interest in soundscapes from the "Far East" pervades the LP. For the most part, though, Assbring avoids sounding like a shallow xenophile. This doesn't seem like a record by a Swedish singer-songwriter preoccupied with American pop and intrigued by pan-Asian instruments and melodies; it seems like the work of a singular artist writing songs out of a new place in her life. These are El Perro Del Mar songs, unmistakably, and no amount of guzheng plucks, shakuhachi puffs, or Arabic string embellishments distract from that. For a case in point, listen to "Endless Ways", a disarming dream-pop ballad spangled with harpsichord taps and sweet-toothed lyrics about striving to be a better person. "Hard Soft Hard" could be the opening number of a surreal lounge act in the middle of a dystopian, Tokyo-like metropolis. "Ging Ging", likewise, seems to belong to some parallel reality of dying neon, smog-ridden skies, and gutted souls traipsing down overcrowded streets. "Happiness, whatever it means / It's not enough", she sings, offering the most concise summary we have of Assbring's worldview: a vision of humanity where joy is overrated and melancholy yields infinite dimensions of truth and feeling.
Despite all the risks it takes, it would be wrong to call KoKoro an evolution for Assbring. The LP expands her sound, but it does little to wrench her out of the darker-shade-of-twee headspace where she's resided for years. If you're already a fan, this is a good thing. “Kouign-Amman", for instance, ranks up there with some of the best El Perro Del Mar compositions. Taking its name from a French pastry, it's a track that contains all that we've come to expect from Assbring -- heartrending vocals, airy production, an enveloping sense of mood -- while still somehow seeming brand new. Its centerpiece, a gorgeous, Supremes-esque verse melody, defies description while still demanding it. A tiptoeing desire hurrying to its target, a wisp of euphoria tripping steady feet, a bite of cotton-candy ether -- none of these images do it justice, but they approximate its simple, uncompromising elegance. This, more often than not, is the effect of Assbring's music: a sensation of being at a loss for words, spellbound by the sheer beauty of an otherworldly melody escaping from mortal lips.