The relationship between simplicity and complexity is, well, complex. Some of my favorite works of art are those that pair the elements at work in them down to the necessary (which is always something different) and in doing so they create a disorienting depth that one can become lost in. An epic trajectory is plotted along familiar points. Things that one usually takes for granted exude a magnetic fascination, re-opening us to the world made up by the smallest details: “To see a world in a grain of sound / or a Heaven in a wild flower,” as William Blake put it.
The Snake is the second album by the Swedish husband and wife duo, Wildbirds & Peacedrums. Originally released in Sweden in 2008, the record won them the prestigious Jazz in Sweden award. Their sound is built on Mariam Wallentin’s bluesy, flexible voice, and the sometimes frantic, sometimes austere (but always expressive) drumming of Andreas Werliin. Both play a number of other instruments—the steel drum, piano, xylophone, marimba and Rhodes among them— which pop up here and there to lend a bit of color to proceedings. For the most part, things stay pretty minimal, a primitive, transcendent concoction of the human voice and percussive splendor.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums aren’t going to knock you out with intricate, cerebral arrangements. The Snake is all about the visceral, sending waves of concentrated life rolling out in the world to hit listeners square in the chest, maybe knock them on their asses or set them to unfurling some joyous, totemic shakes and rumbles. It has ominous, heady moments (opener “Island” and the psychedelic-tinged “Who Ho Ho Ho”), some playfully rapturous ones (the fantastic, “Liar Lion”), and plenty of sock-it-to-`em steamrollers (“There is No Light” and “Today/Tomorrow” principle among them).
“Liar Lion” opens with a jazzy, jittery drumbeat and Wallentin’s voice slung down in gospel mode, singin’ it like she feels it: “There is something pretty and there is something ugly / but in the end you just don’t know.” A little over halfway through, the rhythm picks up and she starts scatting some nonsense syllables, and everything gets thrown into overdrive halfway to ecstasy. Another standout is the closer, “My Heart,” a seven-and-a-half minute ballad floating on the surface of a clatter of handclaps, xylophone keys and, eventually, ricocheting drums. It is an anthem, a love letter to the singer’s own heart and the rhythms that make and remake life. “I’m lost without your rhythm,” she sings, with each repetition bearing off into uncharted territories, howling and howling until layers of her voice fill up the track and carry it to another plane altogether.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums, the freedom of flight and the rhythms of harmony, a strange balance at the core of human experience. A tightrope act, a never-ending negotiation with ourselves and the world around us. The music that Wallentin and Weliin make calls us back to a familiar point, that point where we become lost and only find ourselves by doing, by improvising the people we would like to be and may find ourselves becoming along the way.
Video: “There Is No Light”