Monday, June 23, 2008

Female Intuition

Lykke Li - Youth Novels (LL Recordings, 2008)
Joan as Police Woman - To Survive (Pias/Reveal, 2008)

Swedish pop singer Lykke Li’s debut album does not begin very auspiciously. ‘Melodies and Desires’ is a spoken word piece set to a predictably dreamy soundscape and dominated by clichés such as ‘you be the rhythm and I’ll be the beat’. Mercifully, things get considerably better once the rather earnest preliminaries are dispatched. Indeed, much of the rest of the album is charming and idiosyncratic. Li’s voice seems a little twinkly and cutesy on first listen but, given time, it reveals itself to be more versatile and malleable than on surface appearance.

Occasionally, her high pitched tones are capable of disarming tenderness, particularly on the more vulnerable tracks that define the album’s finishing straight (‘Everybody But Me’, ‘Time Flies’). More transparently, her voice communicates uncertainty, tension and hesitation, as well as those little moments of simple joy that pop music frequently captures so well.

On ‘Dance Dance Dance’, she establishes herself as the anti-Shakira, confessing ‘my hips they lie, ‘cos in reality I’m shy, shy, shy’. The song is also an effective curtain-raiser musically, introducing as it does Li’s peculiar phrasing and articulation, as well as her predilection for delicate percussion and ornate vocal arrangements. Stylistically, she veers in several directions on this album, with scant respect for genre, but these instrumental quirks remain a consistent thread.

‘Youth Novels’ is unusual among pop albums in that it is somehow both immediate and slow building, gradually revealing additional layers of complexity with each play. It’s appealingly familiar and infectious, yet quirky enough to sound quite unlike most other pop music of the moment.

Where Li is frequently playful and zesty, Joan Wasser’s second album is a satisfying serving of female sensuality. Given her connections with Antony Hegarty and Rufus Wainwright, I’d rather inaccurately had Joan as Policewoman pegged as a torch act. The bulk of ‘To Survive’, with her voice as elegant as it is dominant, reveals this impression to be false.

Apparently composed in the aftermath of her mother’s death, the album has a mournful tone and a languid, unhurried pace – but it also serves as a celebration and a statement of emotional ambition and hope. Her great skill as a singer is that, amidst the highly refined dinner club atmosphere (which reminds me of a more single-minded Feist), she manages to impose herself in a manner that is often arresting or enchanting.

Much of ‘To Survive’ is deceptive in its stark simplicity, from the skeletal chords and almost childlike left hand piano line that opens ‘Honor Wishes’, to the direct and unadorned nature of the lyrics. Within this alarmingly straightforward template, Wasser manages to tease out insightful statements of feeling, both through words and music.

David Sylvian’s ghostly backing vocals add a sense of mystery and introspection to ‘Honor Wishes’, on which Wasser perceptively asks this troubling question: ‘will you love me and not just my need to be loved?’ Even the relatively jaunty ‘Holiday’ is made more intriguing and questing by its arrangement, fluid guitar interjections and silky backing vocals adding to the luxurious texture. In its final third, it builds into something more dissonant and confusing, with an underlying unease that bursts the bubble of its dreams of escape.

Much of the rest of the album captures something modern pop music too often ignores – human intimacy. There’s a consistent sense of the unique sense of ownership that comes with private moments (‘this night’s fantastic and it’s ours my dear!’) and a wise acceptance that mistakes can lead to erotic and romantic fulfilment. In that sense, the controlled nature of the music, together with the subtle nature of the performances themselves, seems absolutely appropriate.

‘To Be Lonely’ neatly encapsulates the paradox at the heart of relationships – with Joan asserting that she has found the one ‘to be lonely with’. A relationship can be just as isolated as a solitary existence in its own way, and that isolation often requires some compromise or sacrifice (‘this is the one…I will try…’). It’s a disarming and lucid statement, on which Wasser sounds naked in her honesty.

‘To Survive’ doesn’t leave too lingering an impression on first listen. It seems too calm, too dignified and too controlled. Further listens reveal the triumph that comes through desperation, both in the purity and clarity of her singing and the meticulous execution of the arrangements. There’s the calling of the strings as they enter halfway through ‘To Be Lonely’ or the gradually emerging horns of ‘Magpies’, capturing the sense of rebirth Wasser hints at in the lyrics.

She escapes her intimate cocoon only on ‘Furious’ and the startling closing track ‘To America’ which features a surprisingly unobtrusive guest appearance from Rufus. On the former, she is astounded by her rage, and quizzical as to why there seem to be so few others who share it. The latter embarks on an unusual and unpredictable journey from minimal ballad to startling oom-pah assault.

‘To Survive’ is at once fragile and stalwart, a shimmering and beautiful beacon of a record. It also comes with a quite enchanting cover image, a nude Joan visible only from the shoulders, in profile and looking majestic and radiant in spite of the sepia palette. It’s a neat artistic summation of her achievement with this album – she stands bold and imperious against a deceptively smooth, muted background.

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