Saturday, May 23, 2009

Album of the Week: I Was A King

For those of you who like things like "details" and "accuracy," you'll note that I'm posting my 5/20 review on 5/23. Whatever - I was out of town, stuck in Bethesda in a
"luxury" apartment for the week that didn't have internet. Or nearly enough working lightbulbs. And free wireless is amazingly difficult to find in DC! So, here I am, busting ass to post this thing now that I've returned triumphantly to Clevo. Without further delay, I give you my thoughts on the self-titled 2009 I Was A King release.

This is the album to listen to if you like your guitar served with a side of slurry male vocals with that sweet-cute northern European accent. Lest you misunderstand me, let me be clear: both the aforementioned guitar and singing are great, working together well, like a Nordic J Mascis, split into two bodies and genders. In this case, the bodies (and, I guess, gender representatives) are vocalist Frode Strømstad and axe-woman Anne Lise Frøkeda, who serve as the core components of Norweigian psych-pop rockers I Was A King. (Production and musical assistance also came from a veritable who’s who of gentle indie rockers, including Daniel Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Ladybug Transistor (who also provided the studio space). Between these esteemed assistants and the various seminal bands that are often name-dropped in I Was A King reviews – including Teenage Fanclub, The Electric Prunes, Apples in Stereo, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Dinosaur Jr, and even Jimi Hendrix – and you get a pretty decent idea of what you are in for: something fuzzy, loud, quirky, and cool, but still some semblance of traditional song structure underneath.

Their newly released self-titled second LP, which follows 2007’s debut Losing Something Good For Something Better, is a brief ditty of an album, appropriately filled with fifteen mostly short tracks, with only one song longer than 3 minutes and six tunes clocking in at 2 minutes or less.

Perhaps because of the length limits, much of this album seems like the record equivalent of a rough draft. I wouldn’t call this a demo, as there are a few too many songs and most of them are, while imperfect, far more polished than the word would indicate. Still, the songs where the band fills out there songs beyond the 2 minute mark are indisputably the best on the album, particularly “Golden Years” and their cover of Larry Norman’s “Hard Luck Bad News,” but also the group’s version of an extended jam, the three-minute, forty-three-second long “It’s All You.”

The album opens with “Still” – a poor opening choice, as it resembles the sound of opening a half-dozen different myspace pages of individually cool bands, then closing them one at a time, moving slowly from awful dissonance to something cool enough to motivate you to open that last band’s site in the first place. 45 seconds into this track, all the misfitting pieces merge together into some power pop glory, then quickly lead in to track number 2, “Step Aside.” This one is best described as J Mascis-pop with occasional Meat Puppet-y vocals. Sound nice? It actually is.

It also is an apt precursor for the rest of the songs on the album, nearly all of which are drenched in sonic influence, like “A Name That Hurts To Say” and its recollection of Brian Jonestown Massacre and Neil Young or the much-mentioned “Norman Bleik” which affects Mark Linkous rescoring Godspell. In some cases the inspiration is more general (and generational), with “Extra Number” and album-closer “Fading Summer” both harkening back to my youth with their mid-90s alt-rock flair and “Golden Years” with its generic 60s psych-rock sound.

There are some really great songs on this record, too, in case the description here seems too negative. The aforementioned “Golden Years,” “A Name That Hurts To Say,” and the “Hard Luck Bad News” cover completely jam, with the latter song providing the indie rock equivalent of weaving back and forth across the center line in the road, with the guitar and vocals occasionally leading then following then catching before losing the rhthym section. I absolutely love it – this one will without a doubt be on my “Best of Summer 2009” mix.

The track that follows this one, “Stay Warm” is as awesome as it is different from its precursor. In this one, the band sounds very sweet, almost a like a 60s girl group (as they also do on “California”) while simultaneously betraying their Norwegian roots the most of any song on the album. It is this song that makes me most want to make the lazy Peter, Bjorn, and John comparison, which I suppose I just did in a passive-aggressive way. They follow “Stay Warm” with a return to the not-as-ear-splitting Euro-version of Dinosaur Jr style that initially drew me to the group’s work – it is this sound that should go over GREAT live. So should the next one, “It’s All You,” Their big ballad, steady, slow, and eventually switching a bit more than a minute in to layered power that is a long way from the solo piano intro.

All in all, there is a lot to like about this album, and even more reason to keep an eye out for future I Was A King releases. Nevertheless, the incomplete, unfinished nature of this album outweights the brief several moments of brilliance. Because of this, continuing with my new ranking format introduced in last week’s Crocodiles review, I rate this as a “buy it used next time you see it in the salvage bin” album. Somebody oughta get some money out of you for this one, but not $13.99. And given the overwhelming obviousness of the influences in some of the songs, perhaps Frode and Anne Lise should be the ones that lose out on the cut.

Nevertheless, this is a band that merits your handful of singles when they come through town to play a live set, which, incidentally, will be soon. Quite soon. Wednesday, in fact. They’ll be at the Beachland, with opening duties falling to NEO local acts The Dreadful Yawns and Kong Sauce. My honest recommendation is for you to definitely check this show out. If you dig the band, grab a copy from them at the merch table after the show.

1 comment:

Kelly and José said...

Okay. Good. We're sold. See you at the show tomorrow*