One of the oddest characteristics of Birthday, the debut album from Norway’s Pom Poko, is perhaps what makes it so attractive: a refusal to commit to one specific influence or style. While they enjoy mining a late ’80s / early ’90s bubblegum-punk vibe, that aesthetic works hand-in-hand with some stunningly virtuoso musicianship. Imagine Robert Fripp, giddy on club drugs, joining forces with a reformed Sugarcubes. Picture the laser-focused math-rock precision Battles jamming with Deerhoof. If that type of dichotomy sounds positively insane on paper, wait until you hear it.
Formed while studying at Trondheim Music Conservatory, Pom Poko – Ragnhild on vocals, Ola on drums, Jonas on bass and Martin on guitar (a first-name-basis band, apparently) – named themselves after the famous Japanese animated film, the style of which is not unlike what that band strives for in its music and live performances: “high energy, fast paced, lots of stimulus for eyes and ears – and most importantly, really crazy and fun”, according to their press release. Mission accomplished.
Birthday is an album that contains more blissful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it musical motifs than many bands achieve in their entire careers. “Theme #1” begins with a woozy, dreamlike introduction and the odd mantra “sublime, sufficient” before crashing into an insane, lightning fast guitar figure that sounds like the aural equivalent of multicolored strobe lights. Things settle down just a touch on “My Blood”, which matches hummable, memorable melodies with razor-sharp guitar lines. The band stops to catch its breath while Ragnhild’s voice coos “Oh, nothing is against me / My body is a flower / My blood simulating ecstasy / Oh, swirl around and let go” before they leap once again into the breach. The broken English abstractions bring to mind everything from Shonen Knife to Pom Poko’s Scandinavian cousins the Cardigans.
The single “Follow the Lights” is a high point among the album’s countless other peaks. A lumbering, bluesy beat sounds like an awakening dinosaur while still maintaining a gleeful sense of catchiness, like a lollipop covered in razorblades. The breakneck tempo shifts of “Crazy Energy Night” seem to bridge the gap between punk and progressive rock, causing music journalist Miranda Sawyer to enthuse “That’s about 20 records in one, isn’t it?” when the song premiered on BBC Radio 6 earlier this year.
While Pom Poko tends to stick to a unique and wholly original sound, it’s all the result of a wealth of influences, which they sometimes acknowledge in an oddly sideways fashion. The song “Daytripper” isn’t, as one might assume, a cover of the Beatles classic. But the song’s main guitar riff is something of an inverted, opaque tribute to the original song, giving the band an opportunity to wink at both its audience and rock royalty. “You will love me no matter what,” Ragnhild sings defiantly alongside a thrashing musical backdrop, which is followed by a bellowing guitar solo.
But pulverizing moments like “Day Tripper” are also tempered with uncharacteristic restraint on songs like “My Work Is Full of Art”, which starts with a typically cacophonous introduction but settles down with a brittle funk backbeat and the makings of a lovely – but still weird – pop song. The stately guitar harmonics that introduce “Honey” make way for Ragnhild channeling Bjork with her seductive voice singing lines like “Don’t let it rain, honey / It’s way too late for me / Kisses you gave to me / It’s fucking lonely out here.” The arrangement is gorgeous and shimmering but isolated moments of distortion and dissonance come out of the woodwork, giving the song the feel of a pop masterpiece on the verge of implosion.
Pom Poko is a band that refuses to make predictable choices. Their music contains no clean lines or pat conclusions. Birthday is an audacious debut album that is as messy and comforting as an unmade bed.