Tuesday, March 15, 2011

REVIEW: Oh Land - Oh Land

Oh Land - Oh Land

When I interviewed Oh Land (Nanna Øland Fabricius) at tail end of last year, she said that she approached songwriting by envisioning a room that needed to be decorated, and that decorating the room was her songwriting process. Entering her own world, she said, allowed her to find her creative muse. On her self-titled U.S. debut and second full-length overall, Oh Land proves that she can create a different kind of pop music, one that is, in its own way, otherworldly. Each song on Oh Land sounds a bit like a self-contained world, possessing a different atmosphere and texture, like the blip-bleep symphony of busy electronica on “Voodoo” or the rolling mystique on “Wolf & I”.

Oh Land was quickly signed by Epic Records following her 2009 appearance at SXSW – and it’s hard not to see, or rather hear, why. Image seems to be everything these days in pop, but, for Oh Land, it’s a proper balance of aesthetic and sound. Not only is she creative in presentation, she’s more than just a decorator – she’s the one who raises the walls of her rooms, writing her own material. A listen through her self-titled reveals an authenticity in her stories, erasing any suspicion that she’s just the mouthpiece for someone else’s fabrications or experiences. And while pop music certainly has had its deep, moodier moments over the years, it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint one recent artist who has counterbalanced the seriousness of intent and artistic integrity with the fun, exuberant side of pop. Oh Land does just that, adding the right amount of whimsy to both her aesthetic (choir of singing balloon heads, anyone?) and music.

Before music became the primary path for Oh Land, she was an experienced, studied ballet dancer. It wasn’t until a back injury sustained at the age of 18 moved her passion in a new direction. The study of dance focuses on the movement of the body, how motion of various muscles and limbs can combine to equal a rhythmic poetry (I’m guessing here, but you get what I’m saying). Her music may be generally classifiable as pop, but it’s really more than that. There’s a sweeping gracefulness to the music, undoubtedly a result of those years of studying dance, in addition to being raised on classical music. Oh Land cites Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff and all the Russian ballet composers as influences, as well as Björk, Kraftwerk, and Laurie Anderson – so you know she has a well-rounded musical palette to draw from and it certainly shows on this album.

The songs on Oh Land maintain an electronic backbone, but are rather expansive thanks to Oh Land’s layers of seductive, at times ethereal, background vocals and the inclusion of string arrangements. “Perfection” is a cinematic, classical, electropop song that radiates absolutely beauty, sounding incredibly warm. And yet, it’s sort of Oh Land’s “Every Breath You Take,” as we find a woman talking about how she wants to perfect herself into the woman that a man already loves. It creates an intriguing juxtaposition between its theme and musical mood; it’s a juxtaposition that becomes all the more apparent as it flows into the darker tones of “Break the Chain,” an autobiographical piece about Oh Land’s journey of breaking through and moving past the roadblock of her back injury. She sings, undeterred, “But my feet just keep me movin’/Try to break the chain,” proclaiming that her spirit will not be lost within her frame. “Lean” features an undercurrent of electric guitar histrionics (slides, chords, sustain, feedback), a perfect restlessness seething beneath the surface of melancholic piano chords and swells of cello/violin – as deep as the ocean is wide. “Human” is an introspective look that says for however much we think others are flawed, when we throw the blame on someone else, we reveal the flaws that we all have inside. It’s like a catchy, pop translation of the whole “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” idiom.

Oh Land may not be breaking any new musical ground, but she’s certainly one of the few artists making pop music that skirts the formulaic predictability of what most consider pop music in the U.S. Her unique, whimsical lens through which she filters her classical-leaning electropop creates an utterly endearing sound that’s both danceable and weighty enough to float your consciousness in. This is nuanced pop that you can dance to but that isn’t devoid of meaning. Songs like “Sun of A Gun” and “Voodoo” are ready for the dance floor, but, along with songs like “Human” and “Wolf & I,” Oh Land’s music is cinematic without losing its heart in the expansive sound. It might cast a dreamy atmosphere, but it’s music filled with a sense of discovery – a reminder that you can have fun while learning about yourself and the world that surrounds you.

Oh Land's self-titled U.S. debut is out today on Epic Records. Pick it up at your local independent record shop, Amazon, Amazon MP3, or iTunes.

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