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The Concretes - The Concretes

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Artist: The Concretes

Album: The Concretes

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: Oct. 4, 2004

The Concretes cut a stylistic path an inch wide and a mile deep. Aficionados of ‘60s pop music, they're dedication to orchestral pop music results in such a remarkable consistency throughout the 11 songs on their debut album that they carve a distinct trench for themselves, entirely separate from those of their historically minded peers. The Shins? No, Brian Wilson does not cast much of a shadow on this album. Belle and Sebastian? No, virtually no traces of folk rock (although, like Belle and Sebastian, the Concretes have the kind of detached cool so easily associated with ‘60s modernist intellectualism). The Reigning Sound? No, the Concretes are far too slowly paced. Saturday Looks Good to Me? No, although one song is a meditation on Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” the fondness for r&b isn’t as evident in the songwriting.

Like each of those bands, however, the Concretes are populists at their core. While they're willing to bring in an assortment of instruments (both symphonic and not – mandolin, harp, and some brass are all used) the arrangements tend to shake out for the benefit of the casual listener rather than the artists’ off-kilter muse. The closing "This One's For You" sounds poised to spin off into experimentation in its final minute before the group shuts it down completely – thus confining their rambling to a minute-and-a-half at the very end of the album.

There is nothing overtly taxing about The Concretes, nor does it rearrange any of its traditional elements. That certainly does not mean that nothing interesting happens, however; populist doesn't always mean dowdy. Quite the contrary, actually. What's perhaps most interesting about the album is that it steers clear of most indie rock tropes. More specifically, it relegates the guitar to the background, where it’s either one element in a volatile mix from which melodic lines emerge, as on “Can’t Hurry Love,” or used as a sort of arch percussion, not controlling the tempo but establishing a somber mood and a languid pace, as on the hungover “New Friend.” There’s no instrumental center to the Concretes, and, just as on those ‘60s-era orchestral pop albums, the chorus might build on a throwaway bass line as anything else.

Truthfully, the real center of the Concretes is Victoria Bergsman’s voice, which also happens to be the most interesting thing about the album. Possessed with one of those impossible-to-place Swedish accents, her vocals are fairly somnambulant, and she can sing ostensibly simple lines like, “It seems fine, though it ain’t no / I got to find the way to flow / deep in the heart I will seek and find it all” at something like the tipping point between detachment and commitment. Her voice has its limits, though. Oddly most of the songs build to a big chorus, and the Concretes compensate for Bergsman’s range with a chorus of back-up singers, including fellow Swede Nicolai Dunger (who earlier this year honored the importance of backing vocals when he did his best Arthur Lee impression on Calexico’s cover of “Alone Again Or”).

The Concretes will be a change of pace for listeners familiar with Boy, You Better Run Now, a collection of their first two EPs that Up Records released in 2000. That was the product of a synth-pop band that occasionally listened to the oldies station; even if that sounds appealing, there are dozens of bands one could currently track down who now do exactly the same thing. Now, they’ve found a way to put daylight between themselves and their stylistic fellow travelers.

By Tom Zimpleman

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