To set the proper mood for this week's review, I'd recommend you track down (or follow the convenient links provided here) the following recordings: They Might Be Giants' "Sleeping in the Flowers" and "Stockton Gala Days" by the 10,000 Maniacs. The work of Gothenburg, Sweeden's Sambassadeur on the four-piece's third full-length album, European, follows the mold framed by these American recordings in both tone and tempo. Note the driving nature of both these tracks, with their limber orchestrations and full-bodied chorus parts.
When recording artists include significant orchestrated elements in their songs, there is always the potential for the results to be prodding and lethargic due to the collective weight of the combined instruments. It is no small achievement to find records that strike the right balance between complex musicality and appropriate pace when including substantial string and horn parts with the more conventional guitar-piano-bass-drums precedent established by The Beatles and not deviated from often. In this difficult environment, Sambassadeur finds a very workable approach on European.
After a gentle half-minute piano prelude to open the nine-track collection, the band launches startlingly into "Stranded," allowing the listener to catch up with the accelerating pace by the time singer-guitarist Anna Persson delivers her first lines of "moving faster and you're talking loud..." The track recalls the Our Time in Eden era of Natalie Merchant's former band, with the continual orchestration not usurping the energy or drive of the rock band at the heart of the number, except Perrson and her Sweedish colleagues seem less burdened by Merchant's self-importance that could often introduce drag on the Maniacs' work.
Following "Stranded" is the equally compelling "Days," which largely inhabits the same pace and feel of its predecessor. Its perhaps even more accessible as single-type material, although the entirely orchestrated bridge might not scream Top 40 Hit to most observers. Still, the number harks back to the feel of John Flansbaugh-led number off John Henry, "Sleeping in the Flowers," which at times seems just on the verge of skidding off the tracks because of a continually building pace and intensity. Fortunately, both songs manage to control that momentum to a successful destination, one that should leave the listener exhilarated to have survived the harrowing trip.
Of course, no effort could keep up such a hectic tempo for very long, and the group offers a welcome contrast to their earlier prowess on "Forward is All," a melodic acoustic ballad that's not dissimilar to the slower work of Newfoundland Celtic partiers, Great Big Sea (and who's forthcoming Safe Upon the Shore will be reviewed here later this summer). It recalls how close Celtic and Scandanavian folk music are at their cores, with simple rhythms underscoring a hovering string or whistle part to augment any lyrical direction.
Come for: "Days"
Stay for: "Stranded"
You'll be surprised by: "Forward is All"