Last year’s Heartcore introduced Wildbirds & Peacedrums to the world, earning the Swedish duo plenty of plaudits and praise, but it revealed only a portion of the band’s appeal. Vocalist Mariam Wallentin and percussionist Andreas Werliin didn’t get truly wild on their debut – you had to catch a live show to see them ruffle their feathers. Werliin’s percussion had a tribal energy reminiscent of the Burundi beat of Adam & the Ants or Bow Wow Wow. Wallentin’s elastic voice soared and swooped, displaying freedom and flexibility combined with the ability to convey great emotion.
Heartcore’s songs had the catchiness of classic pop, with plenty of great hooks, but the performances were loose and edgy with a sense of exploration and improvisation about them. When asked to describe their own music in three words, they chose “free, raw and powerful,” and that’s pretty spot on. It was no surprise to learn that the duo had won the Jazz In Sweden 2008 prize.
A year on, they have now tackled the task of delivering on their promise. The Snake displays many of its predecessor’s strengths – good songs, that emotion-laden voice, the amorphous blend of pop and jazz — without trying to be an action replay. Although Werliin’s trademark percussion propels tracks such as “Great Lines” and “Today/Tomorrow,” elsewhere the duo is more subdued. “Island,” begins with a subtle vocal drone that creates a mood rather than conveying literal meaning. Its placement as the opening track almost feels like a manifesto, a message to those expecting Heartcore, Pt. II. “There Is No Light” (the first single from the album) follows and acts as a total contrast, with percussion brought to the fore. The contrasts between these two tracks are typical of the album as a whole.
Another notable difference from Heartcore is the greater use of tuned instruments, compared to the previous predominance of voice and percussion. Here, Wallertin and Wedliin both contribute to a richer soundscape, playing autoharp, harmonica, steelpan, Fender Rhodes bass, flute, xylophone – there’s significantly more color and atmosphere. “So Soft, So Pink” opens with a persistent harmonica drone and wordless vocals for a distinct eastern vibe, before segueing into a less reflective mood. Such contrasts within a single piece recur throughout the album as much as the contrasts between pieces.
The finale “My Heart,” with its singalong chorus and lyrics that tug at the heartstrings, is Wildbirds & Peacedrums at their most poptastic. Its repeated refrain, “I’m lost without your rhythm…“ is given a little-girl-lost quality by the fragility of Walletin’s delivery. And who knows, the words might literally be true – it’s hard to imagine Walletin or Wedliin without the other. When exploring the undefined territory between musical genres, that kind of chemistry goes a long way.