The effectiveness of the summertime pop song hinges on matters of geography. When one lives far from the equator, summer represents a brief interval of heat and life after countless dreary, snowy nights. Is there a better time to appreciate the bright and bouncy pop of the Cars or the New Pornographers than in these brief few carefree months of warm summer breezes?
Closer to the equator, for instance here in the southernmost tip of Florida, summer is not a brief moment of sunshine and joy. For those of us cursed to live somewhere where the term "endless summer" means a brutal seven-to-ten months of crushing, oppressive heat, summer songs seem to mock our weary, dehydrated existence. For the eternally sunstroked, relief from the rising heat index is on its way in the form of the debut album from Swedish band Nanook of the North. With its American release date set in the middle of July, the month of the triple digit temperatures. The Täby Tapes is the perfect summer album for people who loathe the summer.
Nanook of the North, theoretically, is fronted by Nanook himself, an Eskimo who traveled from Alaska to Täby, a suburb of Stockholm. The rather dubious story behind The Täby Tapes is that musicians Mattias Olsson and Olle Söderström discovered him singing a song cycle about his epic journey and quickly decided to grab a pickup truck full of "indie" electronics (including, of course, a Theremin) and record his powerful and evocative tunes with him. The whole concept behind the album reeks of gimmickry, even if the whole bizarre back story turns out to be true. In fact, it actually hurts the album as a whole, which is not even explicitly about Eskimo culture. The character and/or "real person" Nanook is a stranger in the place he lives; city life makes him feel disconnected from his roots, and that evokes more universal emotions than the "one Eskimo's journey" the band history promises.
The Eskimo feel comes less in the words than in the music. Nearly every song begins with Nanook singing and strumming his guitar, with only spare instrumentation: a drum machine, maybe, or a lonely keyboard line. The songs then build and build with more and more instruments, horns and guitars pile on top of one another, building into intense climaxes. This wall-of-sound approach works perfectly in capturing the feel of winter, particularly the bitterly cold winters of Alaska and Sweden, while also reflecting Nanook's growing sense of isolation and homelessness. The music is grand and impersonal, like gigantic ice castles, and conveys boundless emotion without allowing the heat of passion. Bolstered by the sweeping orchestration, the songs play like pocket symphonies; Nanook never has to raise his voice above an underplayed, throaty whisper.
Nanook, though isolated, is not alone as he is accompanied by about a half-dozen female singers. In some songs, they represent Nanook's homeland. In other songs, they stand in for the city of Täby itself. Of course, in many of the songs, the women are just women (although, in the case of Camela Leierth's turn on "Karin Boye's Grave", that does not mean that they are necessarily living women).
Although the female part comes from a different perspective on each song, and is sung by several different singers, the whole album plays like a dialogue between Nanook and this multifaceted female presence. Most disturbingly, on the uncomfortably triumphant "St. George and the Dragon", the female voice becomes a "beast" he must slay, despite her protests that she is "just a girl" and "unarmed". By the closing track, "Forget It Jenny, Love is Just a Privilege for the Rich" (which, coincidentally, is the best song title Stephin Merritt never wrote) it becomes clear that the female parts form the second half of an ongoing debate, as the poor Nanook swears off love because "love requires time and time is money" while Jenny (played/sung by Malin Olofsson) sings of the possibilities of love to transcend the social environment and "erase the filth of this barren place / With something beautiful". The album, as it should, ends in a stalemate between the two conflicting voices. A brief, mechanical blip acts as a coda.
While every song works as an individual piece of music, the breaks between the songs seem rather arbitrary. At a little more than thirty minutes, the album deserves to be listened to as it was conceived: as a song cycle. Even "Hey Fragile", the clear album highlight thanks to a guitar line that achieves the infamous "blue water" sound demanded by Jimi Hendrix, sounds best followed by the brooding "Where Will You Go?" The charms of Nanook of the North are entirely mp3-resistant. Approached as a single musical entity, The Täby Tapes perfectly conveys the beauty, as well as the physical and mental pains, of a bitter winter, and what better time to appreciate the joys and pains of winter than during the most hostile days of summer? There will be time enough for the Beach Boys come December.