Figurines, a quintet of Danes from Copenhagen, excel at crafting short, concise pop songs, many of which come dressed in the wrappings of their predominant influence,’60s rock bands with a heavy focus on harmony, melody and striking arrangements. The most telling thing about them is that they never sound derivative. They are able to make everything they do sound effortless, each element of their sound necessary and intuitive. When the Deer Wore Blue is their third full-length, and it builds on the momentum of their second, Skeleton, which garnered them considerable attention, at home and, especially, abroad.
While they have toured in the US with Tapes `n Tapes and Cold War Kids, there is nothing about them that seems self-consciously indie, no affectation that seems centered on presenting themselves as such. It is far more alluring, and I think, accurate, to see them as a band out of time, five guys that would have sounded nearly the same if they had been around in the late ’60s, early ’70s, or any time after. They don’t fit into a lineage as much as they share—with a number of much-lauded rock and roll bands, many of them long disbanded—a set of ideas about what makes for a quality pop song. When the Deer Wore Blue begins with the up-tempo rocker, “Childhood Verse,” a track that starts with a flood of sky-bound harmonies over a jangling guitar then slips into verses composed of momentary, plaintive rumination—a tinkling piano, a low, steady drum beat—which quickly morphs into manic vocals and a crunchy guitar riff. Here, as in innumerable places on the album, Figurines demonstrate their inventiveness. They seem discontent to rest on any pre-ordained structures, preferring to mutate or cut and paste them into their own, irreducible images. Changes come at any time, from any direction, verses with multiple, strangely coherent parts, anthemic choruses that burst out of slow, lethargic grooves, passages which appear unexpectedly, hardly any of which resemble normal bridges. But no matter how much they manipulate the form, the songs come out feeling familiar—façade of familiarity housing and nurturing their idiosyncratic vision.
The album oscillates between breezy, chromatic rock and roll, and more baroque material. All of it is marked by the band’s unmistakable sense for arrangement. “The Air We Breathe” is the most singular track; a trembling, lushly minimalist song, it is built up around kaleidoscopic harmony vocals that bring to mind The Zombies and The Beach Boys. It shimmers and sways, light and as comforting as a summer breeze, bubbling over into an ecstatic hymn to wonder. “I’ll open your mind in a cheap suit,” sings Christian Hjelm, and it could very well serve as their maxim, that of a rock and roll band that seeks out all the possibilities of rapture contained within the genre’s elastic boundary. Rock and roll is a cheap suit, ever surprising with its timeless, ragged charms.
The little things have a habit of coming to the forefront in Figurines songs. Tightly wound tracks suddenly open up, crystallizing simple, buzzy guitars or fizzling organ tones. “Drove You Miles” comes to an end as a slightly brooding, languorous rock and roll track less than halfway through its almost four minutes, giving way to a rising, cinematic instrumental, capped off by a an understatedly abrasive guitar howling in the wilderness the band has wandered into.
For the most part, When the Deer Wore Blue seems like the work of a band that knew exactly what it wanted to do and did it. It has a measured feel, restrained for all its effusiveness. It may evoke a summer sky, clear and blue, but it is the summer sky seen by someone who knows that ominous clouds are always on their way. And, he knows this as well, he is better off for it. “Good Old Friends” runs on this sort of aesthetic. A note of melancholy for every note of joy, Hjelm’s sincere lyrics delivered in his shaky, Neil Young vein, voice, before the track takes off for the stratosphere, shifting into a careening guitar driven rave-up. “Rock and Roll” toned down, without Lou Reed madly reassuring you that “it’s alright now.” “Drunkard’s Dream” sounds something like a long Neil Young burner crossed with Radio City Big Star. It is easily the album’s lengthiest track, but feels less like a centerpiece than an interlude halfway through, an entertaining one with a big chorus, churning guitar riffs, and even a countrified coda.
When a band confines themselves to a certain style of music, and instead of innovating from without, seeks to exhaust (which is impossible) the moves of their own genre, great things can happen. Instead of sprawling out into territory they have no business treading, they end up tightening up as a band, and their innovations feel like irreplaceable features of their sound, rather than conscious attempts to “broaden their horizons.” If Figurines stick to what they are doing, there is no reason that they won’t continue to make albums as excellent as this one with out sacrificing an iota of creativity.