A Swedish Love Story EP
By Andrew Hall | 18 October 2010
It’s time for me to make a confession: I was not wowed the one time I saw Owen Pallett perform live, opening for the Mountain Goats. While I quite like his songwriting and a lot of his recordings, the experience of seeing Pallett (on violin, electric piano, and some looping pedals) and Thomas Gill (on percussion and guitar) rework the songs in a live setting paled in comparison to listening to Heartland—an album that summarized beautifully all of Pallett’s strengths as singer, violinist, and arranger.
Perhaps it ultimately comes down to a question of rearrangement and how songs written for a large orchestra work when performed by two people. A Swedish Love Story, Pallett’s first release since Heartland, is four songs written and arranged by Pallett not for a large string ensemble but for the duo. It emphasizes the way loops allow Pallett to construct mini-string arrangements on-stage but also makes room, for the first time, for pop rhythms and more conventional instrumentation, a result of Gill’s contributions. The duo together both move these songs from orchestral pop into the world of New Romanticism and craft a set of songs that one can see them assembling effortlessly onstage in a way that Pallett’s last several records, as grandiose as they are, simply couldn’t be without being reworked considerably. This does two very good things: it gives clear signs as to what direction Pallett could move in next, and it demonstrates how the presence of straightforward drums transforms his sound completely.
While Pallett has flirted with percussion in the past, it’s never taken the forefront as clearly as it has here, and it’s a surprisingly welcome shift. “A Man With No Ankles,” the EP’s first track, is an attention-getter for what would otherwise be its most conventional element, its straightforward beat. Pallett’s pizzicato violin weaves in and out and piano work moves atop it, but the largely unchanging beat becomes an extremely effective point of focus. When it finally drops out in the song’s last bars, it reveals a world of detail in the piano loop, and it’s more than slightly surprising.
“Scandal at the Parkway” is a show of virtuosity not unlike the composer’s cover of Destroyer’s “An Actor’s Revenge.” Pallett’s violin is front and center, and the closest thing to an actual “mini-symphony” as I’ve heard from him; in three minutes, he knocks out part after part—some bowed, some pizzicato—and makes the process of collaging them sound effortless.
However, the songs lack knockout vocal melodies. Pallett’s turns of phrase and wordplay almost get lost in the cleanliness of his melodies and the busyness of his arrangements (and the fact that his voice here isn’t quite as upfront as it was on Heartland), and the EP’s second half sounds a fair amount less revelatory. “Honour the Dead Or Else” jumps out almost solely because of Gill’s ringing C86-era guitar accompaniment, which hides at the back of the arrangement, and “Don’t Stop” gets its sole hook from its string work (and, again, its 4/4 beat and how the pizzicato plays with it, then is mirrored, then transforms as the drums drop out).
This EP is thus a fine, if also slight, document that showcases the duo’s serious potential—and hints, perhaps, at how it could be used to produce a more ambitious set of songs as he approaches his next album—more than it fulfills the promises of Pallett the almost solo performer/arranger. As he begins to flirt with more straightforward song structures he remains an extremely engaging figure, and still an unpredictable one. If absolutely nothing else, I’m still certain that the composer’s best work is not behind him.