El Perro del Mar From the Valley to the Stars

[Licking Fingers/The Control Group; 2008]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: vintage pop, ’60s retro, twee
Others: Taken By Trees, Camera Obscura, The Concretes

Vintage pop as a fad keeps cropping up, and every case of it seems sketchier. If ‘beauty is the new punk,’ then which image of beauty? Or rather, why this one? Like many records of its type, From the Valley to the Stars plays around with girl-group, R&B, gospel, and Brill Building: strictly forms that predate the turn of the ’70s, as though later pop belonged to a separate world. Reasons may vary; some people probably associate these sounds with innocence, others with remoteness in time. Many are probably only into their idiomatic contextual meanings, like the way doo-wop now means ‘prom,’ even though real prom DJs are 900,000 times more likely to spin Jay-Z than The Marcels.

Whereas a lot of these bands focus on formal reconstruction (cf. Lucky Soul) or on subverting or spinning the idiom (cf. The Pipettes), El Perro del Mar inhabit these sounds so entirely that the record becomes what a style-revival rarely can: its own source of meaning. First of all, forget the dead-on arrangements for a moment. “Jubilee,” “Glory to the World,” and “The Sun Is An Old Friend” would have killer melodies in any genre. This isn’t craft or reference in place of a subject; the two are put toward complementary ends. Many of El Perro’s fellow travelers seem to be writing from outside their idioms — perhaps tracing them from anatomy books. This record feels like it comes from a step further in than the reality ever went.

Much has been made of both Sarah Assbring’s melancholy performance and the gospel themes in her lyrics, but the haphazard juxtaposition often gives the sense that she means redemption from suffering, not from sin — treating despair like an essential character quality that must be absolved rather than overcome. This tension, between the longing to find hope (the theme of much of gospel) and intense suspicion toward all hope (the theme of lots of mope-pop), feels warmly familiar at first listen. It may be meant as religious liturgy, but it’s also a fair analogue for depression.

Examining From the Valley to the Stars on purely formal terms, it remains stubbornly impressive. These songs are brief — many of them begin and end with fades to give the opposite sense — but I think the effect is more often clarity than slightness. With one exception only, none is asked to carry more running time than it’s got melody to. Though it’s all very even, it’s sequenced so that attention is called to the differences from one song to the next. Most revivalists wear their nostalgia without also giving the impression that they listen to old music, but these songs refer with the touch of a composer who knows the territory.

So, if you’re with indie-pop’s backward-gazing contingent, or if you prefer it when ‘achingly beautiful’ actually aches, or if you want an example of style-versus-substance as a false dilemma — then get this record.

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