24 January 2010

Northern Portrait: "Criminal Art Lovers"

Allow me to introduce you to Jesper Bonde, Stefan Larsen, Rune Reholt, Caspar Bock Sorensen, and Michael Sorensen – better known as the Danish quintet Northern Portrait. They prove something that I have said over and over again: Scandinavian musicians are amazing and amazingly underestimated in the Anglo-American musical scenes. Harkening back to the 1980s for their cues (most obviously from Echo and the Bunneymen and The Smiths), their debut album, “Criminal Art Lovers” (18 January 2010 in the USA), delivers sleek guitar playing and dramatic vocals. And of course we have been living in a decade long revival of the 80s, but to lump Northern Portrait into the category of being a tribute band, rehashing the past, would be a bit insane. Beneath all of the cues, beneath our own desires to relive the heydays of Madchester or The Smiths, is a young band from Copenhagen that has written an album that is both infectious and thought provoking.

Right from the opening, “The Münchhausen in Me,” it is obvious that this band has some pretty sophisticated arrangements, especially towards the end of the song when the vocal arrangement is basically used in much the same way you would arrange strings or keys. The song’s uplifting tempo and joie de vivre is carried over to “When Goodness Falls.” And then it hits you: the sophistication to be able to write a song that is lyrically the antithesis of the music. Though the lyrics could easily inspire you to wallow in your own self-deprecation, the music drives you in another direction. And it is that feel of lyrical/musical divergence that you experience all over the album. It is that lyrical/musical divergence that helps to create the alluring, visceral connection with the band, while tapping your feet or full out dancing.

“Crazy,” accompanied with some beautiful strumming and lead guitar interplay, is a stand out jewel on the album: “Crazy, what is this thing that is happening to me? I’m going crazy, it’s always happening to me. I rock the boat whenever there’s a chance… I’d slit the throat on anyone who wants to put me down.” Again, that interplay, that divergence, but what really caught my ear about this song is that it is not that standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-chorus crap that so many bands rely on. Their ability to conceptualize a song and what it needs is obvious from beginning to end. There is no attempt to fit any of the songs in a mold, and there isn't any attempt to hide the musical savvy and talent behind production gimmicks or tricks.

Danish may be their first language, but they understand tongue-in-cheek as well as any native speaker of English. Just check out the title of this track: “The Operation Worked but the Patient Died” – too boot, Larsen crones “Don’t ask me how it feels?” And for those who are as attracted to intelligent sarcasm as I am, this will be one of those songs you cannot stop singing in your head over and over. And, as a friend of mine pointed out to me, if that tongue-and-cheek was not enough, in “Life Returns to Normal,” the band plays with the Volvo “my estate will take you anywhere” – forming a beautiful double entendre. The intellectual sophistication is matched by the often-time complex musical arrangements, and the way the vocals and music are constantly interplaying with one another. If the band’s goal was to write a sophisticated album, they have succeeded.

The only fault you will find with “Criminal Art Love” is that it ends. Northern Portrait has composed a musical experience that will sadden you that it does not last for hours – that is how infectious they are. Never does the album sacrifice its own sound and identity to fit nicely into the 80s revival; instead the band ingeniously meshes their 80s cues with a bit of Britpop and contemporary indie and their own unique approach and ideas, creating a mix of music and lyrical cleverness that really demonstrates artistry, sophistication, and urgency. Do not allow this listening experience pass you by.

Track Listing:
1. The Münchhausen in Me
2. When Goodness Falls
3. Crazy
4. The Operation Worked but the Patient Died
5. Criminal Art Lovers
6. Life Returns to Normal
7. Murder Weapon
8. What Happens Next?
9. That’s When My Headaches Begin
10. New Favourite Moment

Keep up with Northern Portrait at their MySpace and Facebook.

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