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Taken By Trees - East of Eden

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Artist: Taken By Trees

Album: East of Eden

Label: Rough Trade

Review date: Sep. 8, 2009

After the overly-restrained and austere Open Field, ex-Concretes frontwoman Victoria Bergsman’s first outing as Taken By Trees, follow-up East of Eden sounds positively sumptuous and baroque. Recorded in Pakistan with Sufi musicians (and Bergsman’s collaborator Andreas Soderstrom), the album is full of rich, energetic arrangements that are light years from the cold and bare ones that dominated its predecessor.

This contrast, however, does not necessarily make for a more welcoming or easily digestible album. East of Eden‘s East-meets-West theme results in plenty of potentially off-putting elements, from the over-polished “world music” feel reminiscent of big guns like Peter Gabriel (album opener “To Lose Someone”) to the clichéd exoticism of the street noises interspersed between tracks. The fact that the album constantly runs the risk of making such gratuitous displays of foreignness, coupled with the pervasive sense that Bergsman doesn’t know quite what to do with the change in locale and musicians, leads one to wonder if the fruits of her Pakistani sojourn aren’t outweighed by the problems it raises.

A sense of adventure and spontaneity, on the other hand, could easily be read as the album’s strength. As a short film about the making of the album on the National Geographic (!) website (http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/article/content.article/taken_by_trees/en) makes clear, Bergsman’s decision to record in Pakistan was motivated by a search for such qualities. Much of the time, however, she seems unwilling to let her new environment push her in unexpected directions. The songwriting here very closely follows the pared-down approach adopted on Open Field, and one can easily imagine several tracks being reworked in early Concretes-style arrangements (“Watch the Waves,” “Greyest Love of All”). On these tracks, the textural and instrumental novelty offered by the Pakistani location seems reduced to mere ornamentation rather than bringing about any real change in Bergsman’s music.

“Day By Day,” a standout track, offers a glimpse of what a more truly hybrid approach might sound like. While Bergman’s minimalist pop songwriting remains intact, it places itself on equal terms with a genuinely different kind of arrangement that relies heavily on percussion and introduces unfamiliar (i.e. “unwestern”) harmonies. Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) injects some unfamiliarity into the mix as well, contributing Animal Collective-style vocals on “Anna” and as songwriter on “My Boys,” Bergsman’s excellent reworking of AC’s “My Girls.”

While East of Eden is a more adventurous, and in many ways more satisfying album than Open Field, it falls short as a whole. The all-too-brief 32-minute running time, in conjunction with Bergman’s failure to shape the means at her disposal into a consistent aesthetic, give it a sketchy and tentative feel. This unevenness and heterogeneity is perhaps inherent in the very nature of the project. It is at once too ambitious (in the recording process and change of milieu) and not ambitious enough (in its failure to push Bergsman’s music to unexpected and truly experimental places).

Even so, it gives us glimpses of sides of Bergsman that we haven’t seen before. These don’t result so much from the external changes imposed on her working methods as they do from a willingness to move beyond of the essentially pop-oriented songwriting that she has to this point adhered to. The two Swedish-language tracks here, both musically suggestive of Scandinavian traditions (closing track “Bekännelse” and “Tidens Gang”) feel more emotionally direct and spontaneous than anything else on the album, leading one to wonder if her geographical foray outside the confines of pop may ultimately lead her closer to home.

By Michael Cramer

Other Reviews of Taken By Trees

Open Field

Other Worlds

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Find out more about Rough Trade

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