Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taken By

Taken By Trees: East of Eden, 2009 [Rough Trade]

Taken By Trees is the musical alter ego of Victoria Bergsman, the warmly wispy-voiced ex-singer of Swedish pop-combo The Concretes - and this album, East of Eden, is her second under that moniker. It's pretty, pretty, pretty good. For this record, embarrassingly, Bergsman headed over to Pakistan. Somewhere that isn't the West, y'know, with its boring guitars and pianos and Chris Martin. She was apparently inspired by Qawwali, the devotional music particular to Sufism. It all sounds a little bit irritating, especially when you consider that the purpose of Qawwali is to induce a trance-like religious sort of state in the listener - but if I tell you that Bergsman has merely filched a few instruments and tricks from the tradition and largely abandoned any idea of making a fully Sufi/holy record, I hope you'll be reassured. Long live half-assed cultural tourism!

Let's start at the beginning, with the really quite smashing opening track 'To Lose Someone', which gives a real flavour of her new sound. With The Concretes, Bergsman's calling card was a very Scandinavian sort of calm, collected pop; here, she adds so much warmth to her vocals with some sharp shakes of percussion and beautiful woodwind instruments, plus the Qawwali staples, tabla and dolak giving a soft rhythm to the whole thing. There is lots of beautiful pattern here, with threads of music criss-crossing each other - particularly in the way the beautiful acoustic guitar (not a Sufi staple) marries with all of this, and cushions her voice. It's a steady voice, with a kind of drone in the way she intones - she moves from one word to the next with a bit of a lazy slur, which gives the song a contemplative feel.

From here I want to skip to song numero quattro, 'Greyest Love of All'. I'm already giving it two points out of a possible ten for its hilarious title. I'm adding a steady five points for the instrumentation, with delicate fluted woodwind flying around the outskirts of the song, flirting with little ringing bells, while further in, towards the core of the song, finger-plucked guitar etches out a gentle repetitious riff, some sort of twangy instrument (a sitar?) echoes it, and the percussion bounces chirpily, counter-punching the song's sad lyrics. Her vocals get a further two points, for being so suited to their subject - that feeling of being caught in between things, neither here nor there; Bergsman sweetly hopes that some kind of happy medium can be found - and her voice is beautiful in this context. She is also echoed by a nice, silvery choir, giving lots of tone to the song. If I add a point for the poignancy of the lyrics and the overall flavour, it gets a thoroughly deserved 10/10. Well done. You also get a Smiley Face sticker, and a big tick.

You'll have gathered, then, that the record is really a pop album of wise, slightly melancholy songs complemented in the best possible way by the instruments and inspiration that Bergsman has nicked from the Holy tradition. She is fully in tune with current music, being pals with Peter, Bjork and John - and on this album she reprises an Animal Collective song ('My Girls' - here re-titled 'My Boys') and gets Panda Bear (of the very same band) to contribute vocals to her marvellous song 'Dear Anna'. The latter song is a gorgeous ballad with some nice percussion and really beautifully toned guitar - and all around, Panda Bear's back-up vocals swirling about her lead, creating a truly lovely anthem. It sounds not very exotic, but rather comforting and familiar on first listen. 'My Boys' cuts through the Animal Collective production bullshit, straight through to the tune. It's got plenty of studio sass, with a bouncing artificial beat and slightly manipulated vocals - and then it chucks in its Pakistani stuff, with harmonium inflating the whole track with a sprightly warmth, and clickety beats giving it good shuffle. There's very little to it, but it's probably my favourite song on the album, and it feels full and rich despite being stripped. Again, something in her voice chimes with her lyrical call for simplicity: this paean to domesticity sounds sincere and moving.

Her approach is mostly winning everywhere, with a few missteps: I thought 'Tidens Gang' was a touch listless, despite being well constructed from piano and whistles, and 'Wapas Karna' is the reason it's a good thing she didn't go all out Sufi on our ass. But 'Watch The Waves' has great rolls of drums and handclaps, and 'Day By Day' is really sweet, with a solid chorus, great choirs, bells, and some plaintive wind instruments. It ends on a high with the stirring, thoughtful 'Bekannelse'. It's an album I've really enjoyed listening to, and one I feel a lot of fondness towards.


Sean said...

I really enjoyed "Greyest Love of All." It reminds me vaguely of Great Big Sea (the Canadian folk-rock band). That's really what it feels like: the breezy calm of the sea. "My Boys" seemed alright but for one note in the acoustic guitar lead that was a bit off-key; not enough for me to call it discordant, but more than I could ignore. Kind of took me out of the song.

It all sounds interesting enough to check out in its entirety, though. Nice write-up.

Spender said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Spender said...

This is a lovely, mature piece of work that beautifully incorporates the elements of Qawwali without being overwhelmed by it.
The vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Star without being so annoyingly cloying and the arrangements are complex but remarkably uncluttered.
Deeply impressed.

chris said...

I miss The Concretes! Her voice is beautiful no matter where it is, but I can't help but feel there so much more energy and passion when she was playing with Frida Hyvonen (whose solo work ranges from mediocre to amazing as well) and friends.

Felicia said...

I really like this. Of course she's from Scandinavia then!