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El Perro Del Mar - From the Valley to the Stars

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Artist: El Perro Del Mar

Album: From the Valley to the Stars

Label: Control Group

Review date: May. 16, 2008

In retrospect, the beautiful sheen of Sarah Assbring’s first album had a lot to do with simplicity. If the notion of it seemed complicated – although it probably wasn’t complicated, just unexpected – it was at least very clear what it was: a heartbroken soul record for the modern set, what one likes to imagine Motown would have sounded like if Detroit were in Sweden. Its songs were fully formed, its arrangements vivid and cozy. Its parts worked together toward a difficult but monumental whole.

From the Valley to the Stars doesn’t have that directness; it gives the persistent feeling that it is nothing but parts. The parts are not difficult but stubborn, and not monumental but unaccountably epic. They are short and seldom changing, more often sketches than songs, and in sum they seem to advance a sort of aphoristic, pastel-tinted spirituality: “You Can’t Steal A Gift”; “You Belong to the Sky Now”; “Your Name is Neverending.” On the album’s longest track, Assbring spends four and a half minutes catatonically urging the listener not to cast away his or her inner island.

But fine, that’s not damning alone – change a few details and the same could describe any number of better albums, starting with M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent and ending somewhere around Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet. What doesn’t work on From the Valley to the Stars is that it tries to expand by compressing, to evolve by changing nothing. Much of what made the debut so charming remains, at least formally: the mincing piano shuffle; the sourly punchy brass; Assbring’s gorgeous lovesick croon (prominent additions include a church organ and a perversely flat recorder). The arrangements aren’t wholeheartedly melancholy, though; they’re halfheartedly there at all. At their best, they’re the promissory notes for chilling hymns (“Jubilee,” the creepily powerful title track). At worst, they come and go and nothing seems to happen, inside or out.

It’s hard to tell whether this is a matter of ambition, or its opposite. Perhaps, given that El Perro Del Mar is essentially a solo operation, From the Valley to the Stars is an experiment in how lush a skeleton one woman can make; or perhaps, given Assbring’s redoubled languor, she’s become her narrator, hollowed out by love to the point of resignation. Just as overthinking didn’t hurt the last album, though, it doesn’t help this one much either. These songs long to be what Miranda July called “something that needs nothing,” but wind up closer to the opposite.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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