That Scandinavians have been making wonderfully pristine pop music is nothing particularly new; it’s pretty much a given here in 2006. But recently, there has been a turn toward gorgeously retro-sounding Phil Spector-esque pop from Nordic artists. The Concretes created two gorgeous albums of girl group pop spliced with fuzzy indie pop before singer Victoria Bergstrom left the band. Jens Lekman, likewise, released a debut and a singles collection chock full of ’60s-influenced pop that left more than a few of us at Treble positively giddy. Even post-punk troupe Love is All brought a bit of the Wall of Sound influence into their peppy, poppy new wave. These performers don’t all sound the same, but they each carry an element of those ’60s girl group singles that we music writers salivate over. El Perro del Mar, a.k.a. Sarah Assbring, may not be the newest to emerge with nostalgic tones and gorgeous melodies, but her sophomore, self-titled release is just now hitting U.S. shores, and graciousness, is it good.
For someone who refers to herself as “sea dog” (English translation from Spanish), there aren’t any sea shanties to be heard on El Perro del Mar. This is music in line with those aforementioned artists like The Concretes and Jens Lekman. But unlike The Concretes, who boast more than a half dozen members and instruments, or Lekman, who layers his songs with lovely samples, El Perro del Mar is a stripped down, minimal folk-soul affair. Assbring’s voice is frail and delicate, but from those petite pipes comes a strong emotional rush. There is sadness and loneliness in these songs, the likes of which are best felt in the appropriate setting. I can tell you from experience, this album sounds a hundred times better on a cold, late night at home than it does in your car on a warm afternoon.
The atmospheric opening of “Candy” mirrors the emptiness which Assbring expresses so elegantly: “I’ve done just about all, trying to care about everyone except me.” Yet there’s a bittersweet redemption as she declares, “I’m going for to buy me some candy.” The pace picks up in the girl-group sounds of “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get),” a simple and sweet highlight. The song that immediately struck me, jaw crashing to the floor (and this was still during the warm afternoon, mind you), was “Party,” which smacks of a lover’s desperation. When Assbring sings “come on over baby, there’s a party going on,” it’s not a cheerful invitation, it’s a cry for help, lip quivering, tears streaming through mascara. That it’s so starkly beautiful makes the nerve all the more raw and exposed.
There’s not as much sadness on “Dog,” so much as there is bitterness: “all the feelings you have for me, just like for a dog.” And yet again, in its minimal arrangement, its icy approach makes it so pretty, while the upbeat, handclappy “I Can’t Talk About It,” the most full sounding track here, provides something of a foil, though emotionally, it’s just as bummed as ever. But Assbring finally comes to a feeling of joy, rather than one of despair, on the catchy la-la-las of “It’s All Good.” And it really is. Though I could have been perfectly content with this talented girl’s articulately expressed sadness, a smile now and then is good for the soul, and good for the music as well.
Closing out with a cover of Brenda Lee’s “Here Comes That Feeling,” giddy with saxophones but emotionally numb, El Perro del Mar doesn’t reach a conclusion any more cheerful than how she began the record. In her own words, it’s all good. It’s her party, dammit, and she’ll cry if she wants to.