Freed from the constraints of genre boundaries, the Swedish duo has crafted this convergence of electronic pop and jazz that sounds as utterly natural as it does unusual. An overlooked treasure, for sure.
On the whole, we music fans are rather obsessed with categorization. Every record store I've seen is subject to rigorous organization into aisles by genre, swiftly separating the New Pornographers from the Pharcyde, or Coltrane from Amy Winehouse. Similarly, every CD entered into iTunes arrives with a verdict under the “genre” tag. In an environment so rich with infinite sub-genre classifications, Koop’s Magnus Zingmark and Oscar Simonsson (veterans of Stockholm’s late ‘90s jazz scene) must feel pretty damn cool as rebels. It’s simply refreshing to hear Koop Islands effortlessly merge 1930s swing grooves with 21st century electronic soundscapes. The duo describes it as “swingtronica”, both shamelessly retro and distinctly modern, a defiant liberation from the genre and sub-genre labels that hold us captive.
While other electronic artists (the Books, for example) sound unmistakably like two expert sample-manipulators hovering over laptops and smoking cigarettes, Koop just as easily resembles a full orchestra at times (and live instruments are even more prominent, if not central, to the band’s live shows). Simonsson articulates the group’s roots as jazz artists, simply isolated from any pretentious soloing or needless clichés: “We, as jazzheads, wanted to make jazz. We love the swing rhythm, which is the essence of jazz in our opinion. I don't know if what we do is the way jazz ‘should' sound like, it's just our way of making jazz."
Ultimately, though, the album's charm is nonexistent without two factors: the duo’s deft melodic instincts, and the endless revolving door of guest vocalists. “Come To Me” is 2007’s hit single that never was, a fine example of everything wonderful about Koop Islands. The subtle electronic ticks complement the jazz shuffle, and Yukimi Nagano’s smooth vocals slide perfectly atop the Christmas-like keyboards, bass arpeggios, and trombone flourishes. I challenge you not to groove along.
While never quite as euphoric as “Come To Me”, Nagano’s vocals are featured on two other songs: “Whenever There Is You” and “I See A Different You”. The former is a headfirst leap into elegant vocal jazz territory, accented by fluttering string flourishes and a mild cloud of Billie Holiday influence. Like most of the album’s tracks, the lyrics are simple, yet pleasing and fitting for the singer’s stylish crooning: “Whenever there is you / To hold my hand / I’ll find a way to be true / And change my plan”. Meanwhile, “I See a Different You” is a bouncy, tuneful shuffle. The production is certainly flashy, yet the songwriting is timeless enough to fit in on Frank Sinatra’s celebrated Bossanova collaboration, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. About halfway into the song, Nagano’s wordless vocals synchronize with the vibraphone, while the rhythm syncopations float in and out. Blink and you’ll miss 'em, but it’s moments like this that assert the duo’s mastery of creative, yet flawlessly harmonious, arrangements. “Forces… Darling” is another winner, marrying Earl Zinger’s vocals to some uncharacteristically esoteric lyrical content (“She had force of nature / Some say force of hell / God took out an insurance / For when that angel fell / Understandably jumpy / It’s dark on those stairs”) and a drum loop seemingly straight out of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”. The big band influence is so dense you can taste it (Brian Setzer, anyone?), fused with Magnus Lindgren’s clarinet solo. The song’s sole flaw is that it constantly threatens to, but never quite, loses control, missing its full, climactic potential.
Zinger’s vocals are also featured on a baffling excursion into spoken word entitled “Beyond the Son”, a cryptic reading of a letter from “the rebel without a cause”. Zinger’s uniquely British accent is reminiscent of Tindersticks' many fantastic spoken word experiments (“My Sister” is perhaps the most brilliant), but neither matches their delightfully charming musical backdrop, nor Stuart Staples' darkly poetic storytelling prose (despite the song’s promise “to write you some life affirming shit and not drag you on a regular trawl through the night seas to find what crawls”). However, the only real misstep is “Drum Rhythm (Music for Ballet Exercises)”, a brief, yet overly repetitive instrumental interlude that completely ignores Simonsson and Zingmark’s soulful melodic strengths in favor of a synthetic loop.
It’s not the only foray into instrumental territory for the album, however. “The Moonbounce” is a fearlessly groovy (please, excuse the word choice – hear it and you’ll understand) jazz track in which a Samuel J. Hoffman sample is flawlessly woven into the live piano, bass, and flute tapestry. Koop’s fusion of samples with live instrumentation is entirely dissimilar from that of modern hip hop producers (from Kanye to Madlib and in between), whose sampling techniques are endlessly repetitive, like a broken record with a beat on top. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (see: UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem”, in which the Willie Hutch sample can be easily separated from the hip hop elements), but Koop entirely avoids this juxtaposition, giving the samples a wholly natural cadence of their own.
“Youth has gone now, but we still shine”, declares Mikael Sundin on “Let’s Elope”, a danceable venture into complex, distinctly calypso rhythms, and it’s hard not to believe him. Koop Islands isn’t perfect, but it is adventurous, spirited, and fundamentally instinctive – when asked about the group’s musical future, Koop explained that “we try not to think so much, just grab the things around us”. This combination of the new with the old - swing music of the ‘20s and ‘30s with an electronic touch – is stimulating, unique, and never forced. It’s an eclectic blend that I’d recommend to fans of any such genre amalgam … if only I knew in which direction to point you at the record store.