El Perro Del Mar is the alter ego of Sarah Assbring. Her second album is an opus, chock full of non-traditional folk songs that explore the world at large. She's joined at times on the record by members of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphonic Choir. Her 2006 debut garnered high profile raves from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork to NPR to The NY Times.
Review by Tim Sendra
There are singers who can put over a sad song, there are singers who project melancholy, and then there are those who seem possessed of an elemental darkness deep within their souls. Sarah Assbring of El Perro del Mar is one of these. On her previous singles and album (2006's self-titled affair), Assbring convincingly, crushingly bled sadness -- in the music and the words, but most of all in her fragile and haunted vocals. Even at her cheeriest, Assbring still sounds like someone just broke into her house, stole all of her Ronettes and Bridget Saint John records, broke them one by one, and then kicked her cat for good measure. At her bleakest, it's like the sun just burned itself out. From the opening chords of "Jubilee" (as played by a very churchy organ), From the Valley to the Stars casts a spell of abject despair that's hard to break. Songs might be embellished with jaunty piano lines, childlike flutes, angelic harmonies, and even the occasional drumbeat, but they mope and weep like the saddest, bluest doo wop you'd ever hear on a Swedish street corner ("How Did We Forget?"), the loneliest, loveliest tear-stained indie pop ("Into the Sunshine," "Someday I'll Understand [Love Will Be My Mirror"]), or the creepiest fuzzy felt folk (the title track, "Inner Island") around. Assbring handles the production chores with a gentle and caring touch, mostly forsaking the chamber pop sound she previously utilized for a sparser, more delicate sound, though she can still create miniature symphonies with ease when the song calls for it. With the production, the songs, and above all her amazing vocal persona, Assbring and El Perro del Mar create a world of their own here. It's not a world for everyone -- you need a hearty soul to survive -- but if you can hack it, From the Valley to the Stars is a fairly magical trip to the center of heartache.
El Perro del Mar
From the Valley to the Stars
(Licking Fingers/The Control Group; 2008)
Would El Perro del Mar’s Sarah Assbring actually have her listeners believe she’s gotten over the self-imposed isolation and despair of her phenomenal self-titled sophomore record (2006)? Granted, self-deceit was part of the drama she played so well in the first place, but of a particular kind. In my review of that album—submitted as part of my application to CMG about a year-and-a-half ago—I compared the album to Blue (1971), There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), and Third/Sister Lovers (1973). My point was that while the music was pure mid-‘60s girl-group pop, the sentiment was similar to that of the post-‘60s hangover. All of these albums contain moments of brief hope, but ultimately concede to their melancholic core: for every “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall,” there’s a “But when he’s gone / Me and them lonesome blues collide.” Nominally this suggests some degree of insincerity, but instead it just adds to the overall tragedy, much like the hollow optimism of a Douglas Sirk melodrama.
It makes sense that this struggle would eventually bring Assbring out of the depression and self-pity displayed on her first record, but From the Valley to the Stars swaps it for something far less admirable: couchy idealism and almost nauseating sentimentality. It’s like she’s moving in the opposite direction of Sly & the Family Stone, except without a trace of the politics or funk that made Stand! (1969) appealing despite its naiveté. Even Jens Lekman has the good taste to coat his blithey nonsense in tongue-in-cheek romanticism and personal anecdotes; in other words, it still sounds like the emotions of a real human being. In contrast, El Perro del Mar seems to be positioning herself as prophet of hope, relationship advice columnist and overbearing girlfriend all at once. Her music strains for reverence in a way that would be laughable were it not so tedious to listen to.
The somnambulistic pace and minimal “chamber” pop (and I’m kind enough to use that word as opposed to “elevator”) of From the Valley to the Stars make the lyrics triteness that much emptier. I’ve always thought that the most inane lyrics could sound convincing if they’re arranged inventively (see Pet Sounds ), but even “Somebody’s Baby”—the one song here with any kind of pulse at all—still doesn’t really succeed as a pop song. It buys too much into the album’s tendency to repeat the song’s title through most of the song; see also “Happiness Won Me Over,” “The Sun is an Old Friend,” “From the Valley to the Stars,” and “Jubilee.” I needn’t even quote from the lyrics here, since a cruise through these titles is enough to outline their depth.
The cleaner, sparer production isn’t doing El Perro any favours either. While the rawer, Specter-esque sound of ’60s Motown gave the best platform for Assbring’s voice and lyrics on her last record, here the vanilla soul flourishes and post-Bacharach schmaltz come off like an anonymous, bored studio band. Worse yet, the lite-jazz trumpets and soft rock guitar wah (which haven’t succeeded in making any music of the last three decades either more exciting or sexy) sound like obvious attempts to disguise the thinness of the songs. Which is a shame, since the tracks that make more use of Assbring’s voice—multi-tracked to form beautiful harmonies on “To Give Love” and “Inner Island”—are probably the best songs here. The latter even hints at the innocence and loneliness behind her fragile voice: “Where you went as a child / Is where you long to go still.”
But this track also highlights everything that’s deplorable about From the Valley: rather than exploring her own emotional landscape, she’s narrating someone else’s. Her voice (which admittedly still sounds beautiful at points) seems destined for a private intimacy that is continually denied throughout the album, as she insists on looking outward. The result is a series of boring romances and half-assed torch songs that drag their feet in a way that’s exhausting to listen to. Maybe it’s just that pop music should accept its narcissistic nature in general, but why should music that claims to bear so much hope make me so depressed? Come back to your inner island, El Perro.
3 April 2008
El Perro del Mar:
From the Valley to the Stars
[Licking Fingers/The Control Group; 2008]
Irving Stone named his biographical novel about Michelangelo The Agony and the Ecstasy. Sweden's Sarah Assbring sculpts her high-concept pop out of similar emotional extremes-- and quasi-religious themes-- on her third album as El Perro del Mar, From the Valley to the Stars (out now in Sweden, and coming to the U.S. in April on the Control Group), which suggests in its title both the deepest depths and the most exalted heights. On El Perro del Mar's self-titled 2006 breakthrough album, the agony rained down from Assbring's voice, contrasting exquisitely with the ecstatic Phil Spector-style production, sashaying girl-group rhythms, and songs about candy. Her latest leaves its ecstasy to uplifting lyrics and lets the vocals' agony seep into starker, sadder arrangements. The result is an album that's more conceptually unified than its predecessor and has its share of intimately compelling songs, but could also stand to give its misery a little more company.
Last year, ex-Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman made her solo debut under the name Taken By Trees with an album that put Spectorian instrumental flourishes into the sparser vocabulary of melancholic folk-pop. Called Open Field, the introspective record found a barren, beautiful middle ground between El Perro del Mar's valley and stars. Here, Assbring sends out forlorn-sounding songs about hope, happiness, imagination, the sun, the time we have left, and other precious things from the place where prayers are usually cast aloft: a church. A church-ready organ underpins most of the songs on From the Valley to the Stars, and combined with mantra-like lyrics and choir-like harmonies, particularly on "Happiness Won Me Over", for a set of modern love songs. Strings, horns, some subdued drums, and a few times some jingling piano also round out the arrangements, and sly references to pop history (the jaunty "Somebody's Baby" finds joy where Jackson Browne found jealousy) still recur, but this time the effect isn't cinematic so much as ecclesiastical.
Humble religiosity and downcast optimism resonate throughout the album, offering both love and music as redemption. Still, as on El Perro del Mar's previous outing, Assbring is at her best when her heart-wrenching songs can stand (or at least kneel) on their own. "Glory to the World" has the most in common with the smiling-through-tears pop that made the last record so endearing; Assbring's layered vocals bring us flowers and ambiguous glory as shrill woodwinds chirp over a descending organ progression. Slow, restrained first single "How Did We Forget" returns to the prior record's doo-wop feel. Despite the understated loveliness of Assbring's "baby, baby"s, the track is an oddity on From the Valley to the Stars-- a song with lyrics as heartbroken as the music. Elsewhere,"You Can't Steal a Gift" joins "Somebody's Baby" as a piano-based, (relatively) upbeat song giving a glimmer of hope that still sounds barely out of reach throughout most of the album. "You just can't hide away," Assbring repeats, joined again by woodwinds and horns over organ triplets and walking piano bass notes.
Repetition was a big part of El Perro del Mar, but on the new album, it's carried out to new lengths, not always rewardingly. Opener "Do Not Despair" finds reassurance in the stars, and its organ-- together with its subtle, optimistic wordplay, "Today's gone to bed and tomorrow's unmade"-- gives the song a psalm-like resonance. "To Give Love" tries to extract maximal meaning out of its title's three words, straining against the bounds of language like classic Van Morrison: "There's still time/ To give love, to give love, to give love, to give love, to give love." But the wandering bells and synths of the title track and the wedding-recessional organ peals of "Jubilee" anchor songs slight enough to float away, while "Inner Island" admonishes us to hold onto the place inside where we'd escape as kids-- for four minutes. Instrumental "Inside the Golden Egg" and one-sentence "The Sun Is an Old Friend" come off as little more than fragments.
If Taken By Trees' debut did spare yet Spector-informed depressive pop better than From the Valley to the Stars, then fellow Swedes Club 8's "Jesus Walk With Me" more effectively found religion. Relying on acoustic guitar arpeggios and plainspoken, communicative lyrics rather than vague repetitions, the song from last year's The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming found parallels between faith in God and faith in a lover, as Assbring's latest also does, and hit upon something poignant. From the Valley to the Stars has hills that rise close to El Perro del Mar's peaks, and its cohesive vision is a pleasure to behold. At the same time, though, it harps on its themes with an overzealous single-mindedness, occasionally letting flimsy stuff support an overarching conceit that requires foundations of marble. Or at least a really big old Italian ceiling and a whole lot of paint.
- Marc Hogan, February 27, 2008