The Swedes really know what they’re doing when it comes to nostalgic pop. Point to anyone from Peter, Bjorn and John to the Shout Out Louds and The Radio Dept. and there’s plenty of evidence to support such a statement. One of the latest Swedish imports to hit the worldwide music market is Korallreven, an electro-pop duo that’s also coincidentally a side project of Daniel Tjäder from The Radio Dept. Given that band’s increased success and critical acclaim over these last few years, crafting tighter and better songs than ever before, there’s the hope that Korallreven might take on some of those same qualities. Like any good side project however, it seeks to form its own distinct identity. Tjäder and his Korallreven cohort Marcus Joons took their time in crafting their first full length, partly due to wanting to make the highest quality songs possible and partly because The Radio Dept. were doing quite a bit of touring, something they hadn’t done much previously. With the end of 2011 looming close and nearly 2 years of sporadic work put into it, “An Album by Korallreven” crept into the marketplace in the hopes of soundtracking your holiday season.
Okay, so “An Album by Korallreven” doesn’t have any holiday affiliation to it, outside of being released the week before Thanksgiving. If you wanted to forego the traditional Christmas songs and put it on instead, it might make for a nice respite, and the general warmth of the record certainly provides comfort with the outside temperatures plummeting. Sonically Korallreven falls into the same category as a number of bedroom electro-pop acts that have already released albums in 2011. Using Air France or jj (or The Tough Alliance and Tanlines if you like) as strong examples, the songs on “An Album by Korallreven” play in the quieter electronica pool, taking a relaxed approach to beats while still playing around with pop-infused hooks that won’t let you go. It’s not quite fast enough to dance to much of the time, but it’s gorgeous and remarkably addictive instead. Such feelings make sense, given the entire project was first conceived while Joons was taking a holiday in Samoa. A quick Google image search for the South Pacific island for those unfamiliar with it will yield thoughts of pure paradise filled with crystal clear waters, pure white sandy beaches, waterfalls and palm trees as far as the eye can see. Weather-wise, it’s about the exact opposite of Sweden, and it most assuredly has inspired many a creative mind. But the island permeates so much of this record, from the Samoan-like backing choirs to the song title “Sa Sa Samoa” to the consistent use of the word Samoa in the lyrics to a number of songs. Between that and the chanting of, “A dream within a dream” on “Keep Your Eyes Shut”, you’re stuck in a gauzy haze for the album’s entire 45 minutes.
The idea of spacing out or falling into an altered state while listening to “An Album by Korallreven” is very nice and very tempting, but not always simple to accomplish. Most of us are busy people with things to do, and if you turn on this record as backing music it’ll function as purely pleasant and unmemorable. Such is the flaw of an album such as this. There’s nothing outright bad about it, things just kind of stagnate after a short bit and never fully wake up again. Even if you do sit down and focus on these very lush songs individually, what this record is really missing is heart. It’s all glossy postcard beauty without actually feeling the sun on your skin or the sand between your toes. The equivalent of visiting Hawaii but only on a layover where you never get to leave the airport. The most redemptive and enticing moments on the album come courtesy of guest vocalists. Victoria Bergsman has a great resume that includes being a former member of The Concretes, a current member of Taken by Trees and taking a most memorable guest vocal turn on Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”, and she very much makes her presence felt on this record via the opening song “As Young As Yesterday” along with a reggae/Balearic turn on “Honey Mine”. Both are two of the record’s best moments, along with Julianna Barwick’s looped vocal turn on “Sa Sa Samoa”. But Korallreven also prove they know how to write a strong song without a guest vocal, as previous singles “The Truest Faith” and “Loved-Up” prove.
What “An Album by Korallreven” lacks more than anything else though is progression. Yes, these 10 songs are diverse enough to make them individually stand out, but stylistically there’s not a ton of variation. For a duo that have been working on this debut full length for over two years, they’re still at that same spot where they first grabbed everyone’s attention all that time ago. They’re offering no new twist or appear to be truly challenging themselves in any way whatsoever. Granted, much of their sound involves heavily drawing upon the past, but they don’t sound like they’re having a whole lot of fun doing it. Instead they feel coldly committed to establishing mood and hooks rather than offering the listener a more engaging and spontaneous experience. They do a great job with it, but in this day and age we’re going to need just a little more from them to make it truly stand out from their similar counterparts. For a dead of winter warm-up record though, you could definitely do worse.