A lot of great music exists out there. But NBN can’t devote a slot to every CD that hits shelves, especially for bands you may have never heard of. So, that’s where we come in. Our love of Swedish chanteuses leads us to give a quick take on From the Valley to the Stars, the latest album from Scandinavian crooner El Perro Del Mar.
El Perro Del Mar’s 2006 self-titled American debut came amidst a supposed 1960s girl-group revival, spearheaded by the polka-dot-wearing pop threesome the Pipettes. Whether on purpose or not, Sarah Assbring — the Swedish singer/songwriter behind El Perro Del Mar — fit into the Shangri-Las frenzy by filling El Perro Del Mar with full-bodied, reverb-soaked strumming, handclaps and “shoobi-doo-wop” cooing. The genius of the best ’60s Phil Spector tracks came from their mixture of heartbreak and elation, and in that way too Assbring seemed to be making a move at revivalism: El Perro Del Mar’s debut was lush, sparkling and sad — way sad.
On the follow-up, From the Valley to the Stars, it’s clear that the big difference between El Perro Del Mar and any “girl pop” is that Assbring barely makes pop at all — or if she does, it’s almost a caricature, music that exaggerates the genre’s formal features so that it becomes something else entirely. Assbring seems obsessed with pop’s most defining characteristic — repetition — and so a good number of her songs don’t seem assembled in verses and choruses but rather in interlocking mantras. “I’m going forth to buy me some candy,” she crooned on the debut’s opener. It’s a statement that at first sounds like exposition but then becomes, with repetition, a desperate affirmation for someone whose life has become so empty that there’s nothing to do but visit the sweets aisle at 11 p.m. on a Saturday.
From the Valley to the Stars almost completely does away with the debut’s ’60s trappings and pop disguises, leaving only Assbring’s austere, circular songwriting. The majority of the album’s 16 tracks are comprised solely of one or two lyrical lines, repeated slowly over pastel organ tones. It’s a glowing, sleepy album that seems to reduce the surrounding world to clear, discrete notes and colors. If that sounds boring, well, sometimes it is. But it’s often lush and hummable, accented with endearing flourishes — a sassy flute melody on “Glory to the World,” radiant harmonies on “Jubilee” — that give the songs weight. “Somebody’s Baby” and “Into the Sunshine” revisit Assbring’s old penchant for Motown rhythms and call-response backup singing, but even they feel slight and hazy.
Assbring has made an album that’s best enjoyed in a certain, blissfully empty state of mind. That’s probably the point, since the album’s lyrics mostly explore the idea of heaven as a place in your head. In 2006, she sounded like a weepy, jilted lover. In the time since, her voice has lost the pout and gained an airiness that suits the music around it. On the Zen-perfect standout “Inner Island,” she chants over a warbling keyboard and cricket chirping, “Don’t cast away your inner island,” each time emphasizing a different word in a different way. Then she gets to an explanation: “It’s where you went as a child / It’s where you long to go still.” The value of From the Valley to the Stars isn’t that it tells you to retreat inward. It’s that Assbring seems to have figured out the sound of her own peace, and luckily, it sounds a lot like everyone else’s.