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The Concretes

Rating: 8/10 ?

July 22, 2005
Though this is The Concretes' third album-length release in the US, the Swedish pop collective are still yet to bestow a set of spankin' new material on their Yankee fans - 2000's Boyoubetterunow was a singles comp, last year's self-titled LP had been available as an affordable import in 2003, and Layourbattleaxedown is a second odds 'n' sods bag. Though they've been active for the better part of a decade, The Concretes have never given Americans a current snapshot of their artistic development. We've always been forced to view their work from a geographical and chronological distance.

This release does much to suggest that this distance may not have been all that detrimental to our collective listening experience. Layourbattleaxedown looks at four years' worth of output, beginning with 2001's Nationalgeographic EP (enough with the run-on titles!) and ceasing at 2004's Warm Night EP. It presents its eleven tracks as a unified body of work rather than a developmental arc; rather than grouping the songs by the release they first appeared on or the date of recording, the album arranges them in the order in which they best complement one another.

It begins bouncy, wanders into a Velvets-y haze and ends in simple reverie - in other words, it feels like a real album instead of a compilation, leaving the listener with the impression that The Concretes have changed very little since their most formative years. These songs almost make more sense when shared in retrospect and regrouped to fit match one another's mood and tone.

And here's the best part: Layourbattleaxedown actually plays out better than the band's lauded self-titled effort. As strong as that album was, Buddyhead hit the nail on the head for once - it did sound too drowsy for its on good. Victoria Bergsman's vocals were lethargic on the slower numbers, and the insurmountable wall of reverb around every song obscured their glow with space age sheen. These B-sides are imbued with a stronger sense of freedom, rife with gloriously messy nuggets like the whirligig Wurlitzer in "Under Your Leaves" and the trilling backwoods mandolin in "Branches." Even a reworking of one of The Concretes' highlights, "Seems Fine," outdoes the original: the band swaps a brash Motown horn hook for coy violin/banjo interplay that allows for more nuance and greater emotional expression in the verses.

By loosening up a bit, The Concretes constantly play up their strong suit: their ability to participate in the pop music tradition and still sound like their music is a spontaneous extension of their personalities. They've studied Diana Ross, The Shangri-La's and Nico to the point that they can evoke an entire era of pop in a single measure, but every last melody comes straight from the members' spleens. When Bergsman drops articles and slurs words - but somehow still manages to speak wisdom and comfort through the tired archetype of a warm sweater - it's immediately clear why The Concretes are more than just another Swede pop act stuck in the Parasol label group ghetto. You find yourself at a complete, glorious loss for words.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan



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