El Perro Del Mar
Love Is Not Pop •••½
The Control Group
Love is not pop, Sarah Assbring proclaims, and neither is this, the most recent offering from her alter ego El Perro Del Mar. Listen to it though and you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise; the album is replete with sharp hooks, bittersweet melodies, memorable choruses and soaring key changes. However, such traditional pop tropes are threaded through a web of complex, despondent songs to create a thematically sorrowful album that touches on the uncomfortable issues of loneliness, relationship trauma and the inability to form meaningful bonds. Love is clearly some distance away from easy-breezy singalongs to Assbring, and her voice betrays such a genuinely troubled and dejected nature that the ensemble is lent an authenticity lacking in many of her contemporaries.
Opener ‘I Gotta Get Smart’ is a firm standout. A surprisingly sunny slice of dream-pop that references the ‘soundcsape’ guitars of My Bloody Valentine, its sweet melody actually belies the tale of a love affair foregone in favour of logic, as head wins out over heart. “We both know it’s better to part,” she opines midway, leading into the track’s rousing finale with the repeated phrase “go on”, as the implied lover is encouraged to leave to the strains of a maraca-led outro. After 2008’s disappointing From The Valley To The Stars, ‘I Gotta Get Smart’ reconnects Assbring with her greatest talent – that is, coating her miserabilist themes with a comforting, palatable layer of twee – and brings it to the fore.
The final seconds of ‘I Gotta Get Smart’ take on a noticeably bleaker toner, which rather appropriately leads us into recent single ‘Change Of Heart’. Here, Assbring showcases her propensity for top-notch gloom as bass heavy, synth-driven shoegaze gives way to her trademark repetitious lyrics, echoic choir-song and lightly distorted vocals, all of which is tied together by a tight composition. It’s a joyously retrospective piece, despite Assbring’s vocals being pitched at their most uncomfortably pained, and the result is the creation of a delightfully downbeat mood that manages to be neither depressive nor distancing.
Elsewhere, ‘Heavenly Arms’, which is heavily reliant on plodding piano and frenetic claps and beats, features an impossibly smooth and pretty chorus that builds to a reverential hand-clapping, bass-slapping finale. The tempo increase comes so close to being danceable and rousing that it strays toward something akin to Florence + The Machine, but thankfully stays true to El Perro Del Mar’s interloper status. ‘It Is Something (To Have Wept)’ is the album’s only noticeably poor track; an irritatingly drab vocal reminiscent of a lazy church hymn is doubled with an equally sombre piano–synth combo that fails to muster any energy or emotion and falls very flat when placed next to its more exciting companions.
Standing at a modest seven tracks in length (not including the numerous bonus remixes on offer at various digital retailers), Love Is Not Pop is not quite substantial enough to forge an identity all its own, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome either. It’s consistently pleasing but fails to really break new ground, never reaching beyond what Assbring already achieved with her debut. Where Love Is Not Pop succeeds, however, is in refining and providing an ideal outlet for the El Perro Del Mar brand of misery-pop, which, as seasonally appropriate and touching as it is, offers very little respite from its own palpable sense of tragedy.
UK release date: 06/10/09; www.myspace.com/elperrodelmar
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