Album reviews: Cool sounds from Sweden and France

August 11, 2010

Gearing up with Team Sound Ops for today's taping of one our periodic excavations of buried treasures -- recordings that are flying pretty far under the radar (though that's all relative in the age of Internet ubiquity), but which we think deserve to be much more widely heard -- I've been utterly captivated by two albums that take different paths to creating alien worlds all their own"¦ and it isn't only because the bands are based in Stockholm and Reims.

Drivan, "Disko" (Smalltown Supermusic) Rating: 3.5/4

A familiar name in the art world of his native Norway and parts thereabouts, 37-year-old Kim Hiorthøy is a modern Renaissance man: An electronic musician, graphic designer, illustrator, filmmaker, and writer who also dabbles in performance art. While working on an example of the latter, he united with three equally ambitious women from Sweden and Finland—Lisa Östberg, Louise Peterhoff, and Kristiina Viiala—and the results were strong enough to encourage the group to continue collaborating. Now we have the debut album from Drivan, “Disko,” a hypnotic set of 11 songs that, even if the lyrics weren’t entirely in Swedish, still would sound like a transmission from another world.

The group claims as its starting point traditional Swedish folk music—think backwoods, droning, dark, and pagan—as well as that country’s progressive rock from the ’70s (and here Kaipa has long been a cult favorite among diehard prog fans). But these influences are mixed with ethereal, seductive, yet vaguely threatening female vocals and burbling electronic rhythms, and adorned with layers of distortion and ambient noise that simultaneously evoke a scratchy old vinyl LP and the critters buzzing in the gloom of that aforementioned wooded clearing.

According to the band’s bio, the songs “revolve around themes of collectivity and the salvation of something through destruction.” Which all sounds well and good, but the images they summon in my imagination are even more complex and intriguing. You can give a listen for yourself and sample the song “Det gör ingenting” here.

The Bewitched Hands on the Top of Our Heads, "Hard to Cry" EP (Sony Music) Rating: 3.5/4

The members of the Bewitched, as they’re called for short, take a slightly sunnier and more upbeat approach to creating their alternate universe, though there still are some dark undercurrents bubbling in the mix. Remember, the acid idyll can yield bad trips as well as good ones, and this sextet from Reims is thoroughly steeped in four decades of great psychedelic pop, from the Beach Boys of “Pet Sounds,” through Brian Eno’s “pop albums,” to the orchestral-pop Flaming Lips.

The musical approach is familiar—like the Elephant 6 bands, the Bewitched employs a ramshackle orchestra’s worth of instruments—and so are those influences. Yet somehow, it all comes off sounding fresh and invigorating. As for that unwieldy moniker, the group said in a brief interview with South by Southwest last March (and damn, I wish I’d seen its performance there) that, “The idea of an ‘extension cord’ name inspired by psychedelic music pleased us, its length reflects perfectly the fact that we’ve always been many people playing on stage, and we like the idea of bewitchment that it implies.”

Consider me entranced. Intended to introduce the band to American audiences and whet their appetites for a full album coming in October, all three songs on this debut EP are instant classics, with a propensity for massive, anthemic choruses unrivaled by any group this side of the Arcade Fire for their ability to have you singing along the first time you hear them. And the same can be said of a bonus song called “I Don’t Know,” available as a free download here.”