Under the Surface
ou can tell it in Marit Larsen and Marion Raven’s wardrobe: even in the capital of pop music (Scandinavia, but mostly just Sweden and Norway) the times they are a’changing. Raven’s recent solo album was prime bubble-grunge, helped along by Art Alexakis and Nikki Sixx, and its cover recalls one of Janis Joplin’s most famous photographs. Larsen’s new solo album, on the other hand, trades heavily in country-pop and in the demos that Fiona Apple left off Extraordinary Machine. It’s a far cry from M2M, and both of them are the better for it.
Marit, more so, because the world already has Avril and Ashlee for scrunched-up-face angst rock, but nothing quite like the quirky and original Under the Surface. Because what mega-pop star in the States is going to write a song that sprinkles girlish glee on top of banjo, harmonica, lap-steel (or weeping strings, I can’t tell which), and a completely accidental sounding whistle (OK, maybe Gwen, but still)? That track’s called “Only a Fool,” by the way, and it’s brilliant.
“The Sinking Game” might be better. It’s a barroom ditty, full of Larsen’s ebullient caterwaul on the chorus, jazzy piano, and a percussion built around everything except hitting the snare and the bass in a straight-forward way. Oh. And a trumpet that flies in for a few seconds at the end, as though it heard the party down the block and got there just in time to join in.
And there’s always the oft-hyped “Don’t Save Me,” which somehow merges Roxy Music, Mel & Kim (only the latter), and Barenaked Ladies. (Don’t worry, it works.) Crucially, though, even when the arrangements aren’t quite up to the task (this is rare, mind), Larsen’s voice saves what would be lesser moments. On “Solid Ground” she moves up and down, revealing monumental shifts of emotion in a moment, allowing unpredictability to reign when stridency has failed, and turning what was once a simple song into a tour de force. And when it comes together, as on “This Time Tomorrow,” the result is an unfettered joy that’s been missing from the girl-with-guitar genre for some time. Even if she’s often singing about “Poison Passion’”s and “memory scar’”s.
Now I won’t defend Under the Surface to people that are more than willing to call this AOR. But I do so for the following reasons: a) you obviously haven’t taken the time to listen to more than two songs (one of which might be “Solid Ground”), b) you’re just as bad as someone who gets frustrated when people can’t get past Jeff Mangum’s voice and c) you’re wrong. For those reading this simply looking for tips towards the best sort of pop music being made outside of the US/UK, consider this your whisper in the ear.