Monday, 6 April 2009

Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week Month Quarter: “Bear On The Beach” by A Camp

When I wrote about the Cardigans last year, I remarked on how the band’s creative peak coincided with diminishing sales, and concluded that it was because their last two albums – while compelling, glorious and career-defining – were unable to find a commercial niche. And if a pop band like the Cardigans isn’t marketable – not thrilling or ringtone-friendly enough for the kids, not “authentic” or “classic” enough for £50 Man, and nowhere near hip enough for those influential, tastemaking hipster douchebags – there is surely little hope of commercial success for Nina Persson’s side project, A Camp.

A Camp’s self-titled 2001 debut is often described as “country” or “country-tinged”, and that’s not a genre that gets much exposure outside specialist US media. This description overstates the case somewhat, though, and the single “I Can Buy You” surely proves that “harmonica” and “country” are not necessarily synonymous.

This sprightly tale of a sugar mommy trying to hold on to a callow young lover is one thing country almost never is: it’s arch. The Cardigans are sometimes witty, sometimes knowing, sometimes playful, but their lyrics are usually heartfelt. A Camp has given Persson the opportunity to play around with characters, telling stories at one remove from the personal. In the album’s opener “Frequent Flyer”, she slyly claims “I’m a frequent flyer/A notorious liar” as if it were a disclaimer for all the porkies she is about to tell.

Despite being a little doomy in places (it was co-produced by Mark Linkous of doomy doomsters Sparklehorse), A Camp is not hugely different from a Cardigans record. The relentless chugging rhythms of “Hard As A Stone” are reminiscent of “My Favourite Game”, while the atmospheric ballads “Song For The Leftovers” and “Silent Night” wouldn’t sound out of place on Gran Turismo or Long Gone Before Daylight. For new album Colonia, Persson has recruited husband and former Shudder To Think guitarist Nathan Larson to accompany her, and the result is significantly less doomy. Although spotted with vague lyrical references to human beings behaving like dumb animals – ie killing each other, a lot – it has a sunny sheen that makes it irrepressibly uplifting.

The bleakness of the lead single’s lyrics, which suggest that although religion is often responsible for conflict love has been the cause of far more human pain, is offset by the crystalline chords and jaunty beats, not to mention Persson’s unmistakably pure vocals. (I like the video too, which rather than being a winking parody, a smartarse 2009 idea of what 1970s music TV was like, is done with clear-eyed earnestness, believably corny effects and an authentic lack of cuts.)

Elsewhere on Colonia the influence of 1960s girl-pop is obvious in the handclap-heavy “Here Are Many Wild Animals” and the simple, buoyant piano-chord progression of “I Signed The Line”. Although it’s no more a country record than A Camp is, the album occasionally puts me in mind of Dolly Parton (that poppiest of country artists) as well as folk singer Sandy Denny. “Golden Teeth And Silver Medals”, Persson’s duet with Nicolai Dunger, has echoes of “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” (a song recorded by both Parton and Denny) and “Islands In The Stream”:

Golden teeth and silver medals
Beauty mark and scars
That is what we got
Raindrops in a reservoir
And minutes in a jar
That is what we got

To my mind Colonia’s standout song is “Bear On The Beach”, whose sombre, wintry air recalls Angelo Badalamenti’s superlative Twin Peaks soundtrack. While a meditative Persson sings mournfully of Iris, someone who has evidently grown tired of the constant battle that is life, the twinkly toy piano contrasts with a creepily inexorable bassline, evoking a sort of uncertain serenity, a calm assailed by doubt and fear.

It seems someone thinks that the song’s ominous tone, imagery of islands and bears and oceans, and themes of isolation conjure up visions of a popular ABC time-travelly drama series that Shades Of Caruso may have mentioned once or twice.

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