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Loney Dear - Hall Music

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Artist: Loney Dear

Album: Hall Music

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Oct. 4, 2011

Emil Svanängen enjoys the bait-and-switch. Like a lot of listeners in the U.S., I first heard his band Loney Dear via their 2007 album Loney, Noir, which abounded with concise, heartfelt indie-pop. Reviewing a song from it for the now-defunct Paper Thin Walls website, I commented that it recalled a certain strain of modestly-scaled yet memorable songwriting — the music made by Holiday in the mid-’90s came to mind. Behind the memorable choruses and uptempo rhythms, however, more complex concepts could be found: a series of shifting narrators, games played with perspective. Svanängen’s an intelligent lyricist and possesses a wry onstage persona, and Loney, Noir made for a fine introduction to his music.

That album was only one of four albums that he had released at that point. Since then, two have followed: Dear John in 2009, and now Hall Music. Svanängen’s earlier work also has been made more widely available in the United States, and it’s led to some shifts in how to regard his skills as a songwriter. In late 2010, the composer Nico Muhly wrote an essay placing Loney Dear’s fantastic “Ignorant Boy, Beautiful Girl” into a more compositional context. It provided a different way to look at Loney Dear’s body of work, and suggested new points of reference, new sets of peers.

Muhly’s somewhat along for the ride for Hall Music as well: he contributes liner notes, referring to this as “a short album with a wide vision.” Hall Music follows a tour of Sweden in which Svanängen’s music was played by chamber orchestras; this, then, is the most ornate of the album’s he’s made. There are long and almost drone-like sections, such as the one that closes “Young Hearts” in which Svanängen’s voice resounds over sustained notes. (Stylistically, this echoes moments from 2004’s Citadel Band, albeit on a grander scale.) Elsewhere, the dynamic range is greater: “My Heart” begins with a sense of wistful yearning and quickly expands the scope, the low end rumbling and the percussion taking on a baroque touch. That low end — and the dynamic range that it implies — returns with “Durmoll,” the album’s most immediately striking number, which seems to borrow some bombast from Deserter’s Songs-era Mercury Rev.

Longtime listeners will note that Svanängen is as self-referential in his songwriting as ever, titling the third song here “Loney Blues” and surrendering lead vocal duties to Malin Ståhlberg for the concluding number, “What Have I Become?” The latter of those opens with the line “And now I really don’t care no more,” and later contains “I turn into what I am”; it’s subtly significant that Ståhlberg’s first person isn’t the same we’ve heard during the rest of the album.

And yet, for all that it’s technically impressive and for all that it sticks with the threads of Svanängen’s previous work, not every aspect of Hall Music clicks. While the decision to work on a larger scale is a laudable one, the sustained arrangements here make for unmet expectations. It isn’t a predictable album per se, but it also lacks some of the spontaneity that’s characterized Svanängen’s best work. Hall Music’s two strongest songs, “I Dreamed About You” and “Calm Down,” beautifully fuse intimate language and sentiments with rich arrangements, but they’d be just as affecting played by a five-piece band in a small club. They don’t need the plush treatment. In the end, Hall Music is an enjoyable but paradoxical album, both an expansion and contraction of Svanängen’s palette.

By Tobias Carroll

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