Vår is a bastard. But perhaps such is the fate of all side projects and collaborative acts. Like an illegitimate child dubiously credited to many sonic parents, the side project inherits nothing but consternation and misplaced expectations. Perhaps we recognize its father’s eyes and mother’s nose, but the result is so uncanny that we can’t help but reel at its misshapen Otherness. And so, confronted by something that so brazenly defies our preconceived expectations, we respond to this disheveled child not with sympathy, but with disappointment and perhaps even a tinge of genuine anger. “Why can’t you be more like your siblings?” we cry, as we gesture to its blonde, athletic, purebred brothers and sisters. “What is wrong with you?”
All of which is to say that it is almost impossible to approach No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers without an unfortunate set of expectations. Indeed, it strikes me as almost impossible to begin any discussion of Vår without first explaining its notable parentage: originally conceived as a collaboration between Elias Bender Rønnenfelt (vocalist and guitarist for the by now ubiquitous Danish punk band Iceage) and Loke Rahbek (co-founder of the Copenhagen-based label Posh Isolation and member of Lust For Youth) back in the early twilight year of 2011 (albeit under the strangely homophonic moniker War), No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers expands the family to include Kristian Emdal and Lukas Højlund and features appearances by Margaret Chardiet (TMT’s newly-elected High Priestess of Noise) and Cult of Youth leader Sean Rogan (who recorded both No One Dances and Chardiet’s Abandon in the back of his Brooklyn record store).
So, what brings you here? Are you a fan of Rønnenfelt and Rahbek’s previous work in the Danish punk underground and were hoping to get your fix of subversive iconography and claustrophobic, neo-Joy Division angst? Were you awed by Pharmakon’s screeching, scathing Abandon and hoped to find something in a similar vein here? Did you hear that War track on Posh Isolation’s limited-edition double cassette compilation and were curious what the guys have been up to since? Or did you come across the LP’s shiny Sacred Bones sleeve in a record store and think, “Wow, this would make a great bathroom mirror/reflective tanning screen”?
In any case (except perhaps that last one), odds are No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers is not the album you were quite expecting. Where its siblings thrash and writhe and scream, No One Dances flows, undulates, sighs. The result is nothing short of pastoral — a far cry from the urban-industrial disorientation and alienation that seems to inform much of punk and noise. Hell, the first sound you hear on the album is a trumpet. And by the time you get to the synth line on “The World Fell,” it should be abundantly clear that something strange is going on here. Sure, there are traces of old ground on the heavily percussive “Motionless Duties” and brooding “Hair Like Feathers,” but these moments never venture quite far enough to make sense as pure punk. Rather, as on “Pictures of Today / Victorial,” these early signs of aggression soon give way and transform into something downright uplifting. How the hell did we get here?
Perhaps we can call this a refinement of sorts, if by “refined” we are referring to sentiment rather than execution. There’s still something decidedly lo-fi about the album’s aesthetic, but the sharp corners and jagged edges have been gently sanded off. Where other releases in the Vår family tree went out of their way to offend and disgust, there is nothing quite so provocative at work here. This is a poetic record in the classical sense. The ethereal Ágætis Byrjun immediately comes to mind, but I’d be hesitant to say this album carries quite the same emotional resonance. Granted, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers is brimming with beautiful moments: Chardiet’s spoken word contribution on the title track is incredibly moving, and “Into Distance” builds to a euphoric crescendo towards the end. But there is something a bit aloof about the whole production. “Boy” plods around for a couple minutes without going anywhere interesting, and album closer “Katla” feels like an unnecessary epilogue carelessly tacked onto the climactic “Into Distance.” It’s curious that a group of musicians who have spent so much of their respective careers sticking it to authority figures (both political and cultural) now come across as bourgeois dilettantes. Consider this: No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers and Abandon were released almost simultaneously via Sacred Bones, and each album was given a limited-edition box set release. Abandon came with a bonus cassette taped to a dead maggots. No One Dances came with perfume and photographs.
But perhaps this is the point. Perhaps this is some subversive assault on the establishment from within rather than without. Punk in pop’s clothing. Are these plaintive notes pure subterfuge? Have we unwittingly opened the city gates and welcomed in a band of Visigoths? But if so, are they here to conquer or socialize? Have they come for our heads or our hors d’oeuvres? Have the kids finally thrown down their weapons and decided to join the cocktail party?
About a month ago, I saw Vår play a collaborative show with Pharmakon in Brooklyn. The venue was on the top floor of an old warehouse on the waterfront, and the band played on the floor in the corner of a large gallery space. (I was lucky enough to secure a spot at the front of the crowd, but I hear the view beyond that was somewhat limited.) Apart from a table of synthesizers and a collection of drums and guitars, someone had arranged a metal basin of water and a pile of topsoil near the mic stand. About halfway through their set, the musicians began to douse themselves in water and heave soil onto their soaking white dress shirts. Loke started drinking the muddy water and spitting at the audience. And at the end of the night, as the soiled musicians left the stage, the crowd of hip Brooklynites nodded in collective understanding. And I nodded too. As if we really understood what had just happened.
Joke’s on us, I guess.