Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Peter Bjorn & John - Living Thing (* * *)

It’s unlikely that most people will remember Peter Bjorn & John for anything other than their breakthrough single, “Young Folks,” and while that’s a shame, the song bought them a bigger slice of fame than they ever would have had otherwise, which means indie music geeks like me can continue to enjoy their music long after the masses lose interest. Living Thing is the Swedish trio’s fifth disc, following last year’s instrumental album, Seaside Rock, which failed to make much of an impact and went largely unnoticed. The band have increased the intensity of their pop rock sound for Living Things, creating a darker collection of tunes that trades in their breezy touch for a heavier, denser style.

Before I had the opportunity to listen through Living Thing, I’d been hearing the record’s first single, “Nothing to Worry About,” around the blogosphere for a few weeks. With stomping percussion, thumping bass, and a choir of children, the quirky tune certainly had me intrigued. Even behind the oddball presentation, the song has a serious, less playful edge that pervades the album, generally leaving the charm and innocence of Writer’s Block behind. There are still some fun moments on the record, like the sweet verses of the ballad “Just the Past,” a quaint tune dealing with love and insecurities, and the goofy African-chant chorus of the title track, but for much of the album, the mood is less pleasant.

Some of the fussier, noisier numbers work better than others. “It Don’t Move Me” begins with a Spoon-esque pop verse before transitioning into a bleak, post-apocalyptic chorus with clanging piano and drum machine that’s quite excellent, while “I’m Losing My Mind” has a blues stomp behind vocals that sound much more tired than truly crazy, and the result is less than impressive. Unfortunately, too many of the songs on the album are similarly uneven, making Living Thing a frustrating listen. “I Want You!” goes for romantic but comes across as forced and wooden, and closer “Last Night” floats along in forgettable fashion. The biggest surprise (and disappointment) here is “Lay It down,” a downright bitter piece of work in which a ladies man who messed with the wrong girl brings upon himself an explicit tirade wrapped in a light-hearted pop presentation that ends up feeling more awkward than anything else.

The problem with Living Thing doesn’t really lie in the different musical approach that Peter Bjorn & John have taken; in fact, though the mix of digital and live percussion, noisy piano, and squeaking guitars seems to fight occasionally against the trio’s previously established strengths, they produce some genuinely interesting musical moments. It’s the lack of well-written songs and genuine hooks that Writer’s Block was packed so full of that ends up keeping this record from achieving what the band has shown they are capable of creating. I hope and I expect that Peter Bjorn & John have plenty left to offer, but Living Thing just feels like what we may end up referring to as an unnecessary detour when we look back years later.

Last Word: Living Thing is a fascinating, yet frustrating, album that – despite a few strong singles - lacks the quality of material contained in Peter Bjorn & John’s past records.