Sungenre Album of the Month – March 2019
Birthday is the much anticipated debut album from Norway four piece Pom Poko. Having all met and studied jazz at Trondheim Music Conservatory, one might expect a showy and inaccessible album as a result. Instead, on the aptly named Birthday they present a set of incredibly catchy avant-pop tunes, masterfully delivered with finesse and restraint in their playing. Scratch the surface and you’ll find the hallmarks of formal training, but for the most part the songs contain a visceral quality and raw energy which owes more to 70s punk than it does to any jazz great. “What we play isn’t jazz, but I really feel that I use my jazz background, because I feel I’m free to take or make decisions in realtime when we’re playing,” drummer Ola Djupvik tells us in a recent interview.
“Sublime, sufficient,” singer Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit intones over metronomic ticking for the first thirty seconds of opener “Theme #1”. It’s a shaky start which could be worrisome for first time listeners, given the quality of the album’s singles and the hype leading up to its release. However, things soon kick into gear with a frenetic electric guitar riff which proves to be the track’s centrepiece, offering little in the way of verse or chorus. The song soon exits with some reverse effects reminiscent of The Beatles’ Revolver (1966).
Released as a single in October last year, “My Blood” showcases the band’s ability to craft infectious, upbeat melodies and interesting supporting arrangements – this one mostly in 5/4 time. “Follow The Lights”, another single, released a month earlier, is drenched in Deerhoof-esque quirkiness, musicality and emotional sensibility. The opening and ending of “Milk Trust” later on in the album is also reminiscent of that particular band’s output. They’re certainly Deerhoof fans – Djupvik tells us his favourite album of theirs is Green Cosmos (2005), while guitarist Martin Miguel Tonne informs us he loves Milk Man (2004). One could even plausibly imagine Jamtveit singing “come see the duck!” at certain points throughout the track.
The tongue-in-cheek “My Work Is Full of Art” and subsequent tracks “Blue”, “Honey” and title track “Birthday” offer more of a Battles-like deliberate disjointedness in the approach to guitar playing. The latter offers a childlike sing-song melody which follows the guitar line closely, while “My Work Is Full of Art” more adequately showcases Jamtveit’s talent with an exceptional vocal performance. “I want you to stay here, I want you to love me,” she sings in the chorus. After a heavy bridge the song modulates into a brighter key, with Jamtveit’s vocals still brimming full of passion and expression. By contrast, “Honey” represents a bit of a lull in the band’s intensity but at the record’s midway mark, it does provide some relief and diversity with a slower tempo.
Most recent single “Crazy Energy Night” occupies the lucky seventh position in the tracklisting. It may be one of the best tracks on the record, though its meaning is obscured by some fairly abstract lyrics. “Slowly burning, into the equation, slowly turning, mad man into saviour,” Jamtveit sings. “In the beginning our singer Ragnhild was just singing in a sort of English gibberish. So that was the sound (laughs) that was most logical to our music. And then we had to find the words afterwards,” Tonne tells us.
“Day Tripper” may owe its name to The Beatles, and the lineage of the song’s lead riff can certainly be traced to its original namesake. It’s unclear whether this song started off as a cover, but it is in the same key and does bear some resemblance. Arguably, the final cut provides far more intrigue and enjoyment than what a straight cover ever could have accomplished.
Penultimate track “If U Want Me 2 Stay” possesses an almost collage-like quality, with distorted noise, an angelic bridge and a danceable opening featuring a singalong descending melody starting on the super tonic of the scale. At the end, sustained and effected guitars soar over hectic drum fills and a stagnant, single note bass. Finally, “Peachy” produces more of a vaudeville vibe via its drums, while its strong and continuously shapeshifting chorus recalls Paul McCartney hit “Maybe I’m Amazed” (1970).
“I think most good tunes you have to learn to like,” Djupvik says. In keeping with this sentiment, if you’re not fully convinced on first listen, take another listen, as Birthday contains a number of terrific tunes, and an air of electric energy and self-assuredness few debut records possess in the modern age. While currently wearing their influences proudly on their sleeves, there’s enough on display here to point to a very bright future for Pom Poko, one in which they find and foster a truly unique sound.