Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reverberations on Lykke Li and Wounded Rhymes

This is Lykke Li.

To the right is the cover of her new album Wounded Rhymes.

 This is my review ...

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes/(Atlantic)

I wrote a piece recently on a band from Detroit called the Witches, confessing that while I was familiar with much of their music I hadn’t heard it all. Yes, it’s true, even for a guy who works around this stuff all of the time it’s almost inevitable that you miss out on some great stuff. Actually, it’s part of the fun in a way. There’s always something to catch up on, something that’s fresh.

And so it is with Lykke Li. Li (Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson) is a Swedish born artist who just released her second album, Wounded Rhymes. I heard a song or two off of her debut Youth Novels. I enjoyed those songs, but didn’t get motivated somehow to take the deeper plunge into the entire album. Wounded Rhymes will send me back to her debut, because Wounded Rhymes is awesome.

I confess to being a rock 'n' roll guy, but I remain open to sounds cultivated in the pop garden since the eclipse of the guitar as the singular, even primary, instrumental expression of pop music. Although,I concede a primary affinity for guitar-based sounds. And sure, guitars are everywhere to this day - sometimes as music, sometimes as iconic props. But there’s no doubt that the pop music of the Eighties, transformed by rap and synth-pop, pointed the way toward a new popular music landscape that wouldn’t necessarily be dominated by twang, clang, and kerrang.

Lykke Li is a product of that shift. She’s also sufficiently schooled in the history of pop to embrace sound schools old and new, to incorporate classic rock guitar signifiers as well as electronic sounds – and to move between them, to shape shift and to integrate instrumentation, sound and style in captivating and moving ways. Many artists try to do this. Only a few succeed. Some of the credit for Wounded Rhyme’s success in this regard has to go to producer Bjorn Yttling (Peter Bjorn and John). Together, Li and Yttling construct a sound sometimes reminiscent of PB & J’s work, but in the final analysis something distinctly Li’s. Besides, if Peter Bjorn and John lack (even at their best) anything, it’s a truly engrossing vocal presence. They sing like songwriters who aren’t entirely comfortable with either the spotlight or singerly expression. Li addresses that in spades.

In a recent interview, Li dashed off a list of ten songs that were compelling listening for her at this stage in her development as an artist. The list included songs from Notorious B.I.G, Phil Phillips, Dolly Parton, TLC, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Shirelles, Brenda Lee, Salt-n’Pepa, and Roy Orbison. I don’t think for a minute that this historically and stylistically diverse set of references was a show-off move. Nope, you can hear all this on Wounded Rhymes. In terms of vocal timbre and delivery she shares something with singers as diverse as Ronnie Spector, Stevie Nicks (shared rasp and goat-girl vibrato), Joan Jett and fellow countrywoman Robyn. I also hear touches of Norma Barbee (the Velvettes, especially “Really Saying Something”) and even Madonna before she went all Kabbalah on our ass. Of course the trick is to absorb all these songs, styles and singers and still sound identifiable and unique – something Li accomplishes in a way few young singers do.

As a lyricist she captures the dying of adolescence beautifully – that feeling of being on the outside of whatever side there is, but desperately hoping that love will save you. A time when sex is confused for love, love is confusion, and sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it’s a drag. You know that time. Hey, rough days for every sensitive soul, especially you girls (as Marvin Gaye would say).

When she sings “youth knows no pain” in the song of the same name, against a musical backdrop suggesting the Syndicat’s "Crawdaddy Simone" – freakbeat on the way to the gothic disco, the ambivalence in her voice is unmistakable and magical. “I Follow Rivers” mixes, as is the case so often with Wounded Rhymes, live drums and programed tracks, spinning a pledge of love barely disguised as metaphor. “Love out of Lust” (a girl can dream) shares the brave, but wounded sensibility of Toronto’s Diamond Rings. Li’s singing also shares something of Julian Casablanca’s abraded vocal affect. When she sings “dance While You Can, dance cause you must” it sounds like both command and resignation.

“Unrequited Love” is as direct as its title, Li imploring over an arpeggiated guitar figure that sounds like a ghost image from some old Solomon Burke cut.  “Get Some” has been much discussed in early discussions of Wounded Rhymes, primarily because of the lyric “I’m your prostitute, yer gonna get some.” Li role-plays to get power over her man against a post-Bo Diddley/Strangloves/Dixie Cups rhythm.But under the confident surface there’s that hint of the pain that comes with submission.

Wounded Rhymes was written during Li’s extended stay in Los Angeles, where she escaped the chills of Swedish climate and culture for the sunny, but warped anonymity of la-la land. There’s an end of land, end of time sensibility that pervades the album, perhaps best captured on “Rich Kid Blues” (not to be confused with Terry Reid’s “Rick Kid’s Blues’), with it’s spooky, Doors vintage organ sound and vague resemblance to “Unhappy Girl.”  Li warns us, and herself, “delirious gestures are easily misread.”

For me, the instant classic on Wounded Rhymes is “Sadness is a Blessing.” Nowhere is the melancholy, haunted ethos of Li’s art captured better than here.  Li embraces her inner Ronnie Spector and suggests lost girl voices like Diane Renay, confessing that sadness is both blessing and curse and finally confessing “sadness, I’m your girl,” as if the cloud that accompanies her is more enveloping than any lover’s arms. “Sadness is a Blessing” is where Wounded Rhymes reaches the top of its emotional arc.

“I Know Places” is both promise and escape, suggesting the solace of “Up on the Roof” or “Under the Boardwalk” without the geographic specificity. “Jerome” (“swear you’ll never leave me”) might sound like desperation, but it’s a pop nugget of a song (both ballad and blaster) that’s brilliant simply for making a name like Jerome the center of a pop ditty. It also manages to square many of the themes of Wounded Rhymes into one of its simplest songs.

“Silent My Song” ends things on a pretty dark note. Li “feels the needle in her back” and confronts what sounds like abuse (“kick me till I drop”). It’s a song about objectification, and about it’s horrors as well as its invitations. As journeys go, and Wounded Rhymes is one, “Silent My Song” is a long ways from the opening of “Youth Feels No Pain.”  Yet it’s hard not to see that journey as release, as cleansing – at points painful, sometimes celebratory, climaxing in something like self-awareness. And when Li herself sounds conflicted or confused, Wounded Rhymes is a tremendously assured artistic statement.

Reverberating: 8.9

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