Dug from the coldest parts of Sweden.
(The Kora Records, 2011)
Fredrik’s quite an unassuming name for a band – for anyone really. Fredrik the band is actually named after Fredrik (Hultin) the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist. Fortunately, this Swedish trio (a duo until this album) of studio rats who make subdued guitar-tinted lap-pop, are quite a bit less boring than their name. In fact, it took a recommendation from a friend to actually even pay them any attention – look, you’ve got to at least have a catchier name than Fredrik to make me blindly listen to you. I’m just telling you that right now, in case there are any other bands out there who want my stamp of approval on their albums, forever to grace the hallowed pages of The Critical Masses. You gotta do better than that. Fredrik is lucky I have good friends and a soft spot for Scandinavian bands. Otherwise … pbbbbt.
I don’t mean to start this off so negatively – in fact, I really dig Flora, the trio’s third album – but the name annoyed me. I’ll get past it, and so will you. And actually, Flora’s au courant sound integrates quite seamlessly with the contemporary crop of electonic-pop, folk tinged, and even chillwave artists stuffing the blogrolls, matching the delicate sounds of artists as varied as Panda Bear, late-period Sigur Rós, The Notwist, MillionYoung, and Múm. With that list in your head, you can hear the album playing already, can’t you? You’re pretty close. I’d actually compare it to the less rock-y, post-guitar Radiohead moments like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” or “Arpeggi,” perhaps smooshing with Sigur Rós’ “Hoppipola” or even “Gobbledigook.” And Hultin himself has a vocal approach akin to Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, a warm, soft baritone, although more ethereal and less bookish. That sounds pretty good to me – I could spin that for a while.
And it works just like you think it would – the music is very atmospheric, mainly driven by synthesizer, gentle guitar, and a variety of rhythm instruments that morph and change throughout the album. Opener “Ylva” is a short, wordless meditation that had me reaching for the Sigur Rós comparisons right away, as the vocal floats in the upper registers of the singer’s falsetto, darting up and down like angel song against the instrumentation. What’s striking as the album unfolds is the detail to which the band goes as they layer different elements on top of each other to create a subtle density. Regardless of how many instruments are packed into a passage, there’s still a lightness that buoys the songs above any threat of murk or oversaturation. “Vattenfront” and “Rites of Spring” hover beneath a clear starry sky, the former content to run through fields and forests as light glimmers off its chimes, the latter rumbling in rhythmic swells from a distance, as deer, squirrels, rabbits and other woodland life cock their ears in interest and perhaps alarm. “Chrome Cavities” and “The North Greatern,” while rambunctious in their construction and execution, remain subtle – there’s that word again – and perhaps a bit distant, but even so pique curiousity in a way that makes it impossible not to get closer and check out what’s going on.
While it’s true that forest spirits run free on Flora, Fredrik certainly peek into the human heart as well. Album standout and centerpiece “Inventress of Ill (and Everything)” is the warm and glowing house in the middle of the woods which, until now, seemed devoid of human life. It’s sad, though, as the wistful melody that pulses through it promises pigs flying away and “perfect hurricanes,” symbols of emotional upheaval and loss. But the song is beautiful, conveying a sweetness that serves it well. So too is album-closer “Axis,” a departure a bit from the album itself, somewhat in the tradition of Radiohead closers like “Life in a Glasshouse,” “Street Spirit,” or “The Tourist,” in that it’s a bit slower, but full and filled with longing, a deep meditation on which to leave.
So have I convinced you yet to get over that name? Part of it is the band’s Scandinavian-ness, so awkwardly English terminology can be dismissed as a miscalculation of the language or the potential audience. I’m past it. We should all just hug and hold hands and listen to Flora.
RIYL: Radiohead, Sigur Rós, The Notwist