KoKoro is a near-perfect, truly modernist indie pop album in both sound and spirit.
Sarah Assbring, the driving force behind the Swedish indie pop project El Perro del Mar, possesses a voice so ephemeral and perfectly suited for her particular brand of melancholy that it often takes a few listeners to register its very realness. Wrapped in a lovely sheen of reverb and echo, hers is a voice radioed in from another era, one in which pop singers were more than mere mortals and instead living icons who seemed to exist solely within the grooves of their singles. Having shown herself an adept interpreter of Brill Building-era pop and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Assbring has provided listeners with more than a decade of inherently timeless music.
Both musically and aesthetically, Assbring has long recalled a bygone era in which pop royalty reigned supreme. From her pixie-cut portrait on the title of her self-titled 2006 release on, Assbring has cultivated a decidedly throwback musical persona that drew greater inspiration from Spector-esque Wall of Sound grandiosity in miniature than the prevailing indie pop trends. It was a successful formula she utilized to great effect over a trio of albums leading up to her 2012 stylistic left-turn into a more electronic-based sound on Pale Fire.
For her latest, KoKoro, she expands upon her previously established, successful formula by incorporating a host of world instruments and rhythms, in the process taking her already impressive sound to an entirely new level. Where before she seemed content leading the pack of twee-leaning pop revivalists, here she pushes her compositions into new and different directions, expanding beyond the tried and true into wholly new and different sonic territory.
Beginning with the gorgeous harpsichord and strings-led “Endless Ways,” Assbring wastes no time in establishing a brave new world in which she utilizes a host of culturally atypical instrumentation to the benefit of each song. Opening lyric “Once upon a time/ I was fine the way I was born” could just as easily serve as a mission statement for the album as a whole. And while it’s more a reference to self-improvement over time, this realization feels as much personal as it does musical. By song’s end she intones, “Endless ways to better myself” over and over as a mantra set to tumbling drums and Middle Eastern instrumentation.
“Hard Soft Hard” relies on clattering percussion, a vaguely Asiatic flute line and Assbring’s jaunty pop melodicism to create a sort of twee-world-electronic hybrid that proves far less unwieldy than the somewhat clunky descriptor would lead one to believe. This approach is further explored on “Ding Sum,” which incorporates an Asian pentatonic melody atop an almost Afro-Cuban groove. Under the guidance of a lesser talent, this type of pan-global cross-breeding would likely collapse under the weight of its own overreaching ambition.
Yet Assbring manages a near-perfect distillation of disparate world music styles within a traditionally pop context without feeling forced. The Middle Eastern guitar break on closing track “Nougat Mind” feels less like a jarring intrusion than a natural extension of the song itself. Where such instrumental exoticism often has the feel of cheap novelty (see any number of late-‘60s recordings featuring an incongruous sitar), here the non-Western instruments are employed in service of the song rather than the other way around.
On “Clean Your Window,” Assbring marries a heavy-handed bass line to a subtle mix of tablas and African drumming, covering it in a pure pop gloss, her voice a disaffected siren keeping watch over the proceedings. Similarly, “Ging Ging” relies on Asian stringed instruments – here used effectively and without the slightest hint of exploitation – paired with African rhythms and a Middle Eastern melody. It’s a cross-cultural musical gumbo that proves far more effective than the sum of its respective parts would indicate.
After the relatively stylistic R&B/house experiment that was Pale Fire’s, KoKoro‘s liberal global pop appropriation feels like a breath of fresh air and an impressive return to and surpassing of form. Given the increased universality of modern society, it’s a wonder more artists haven’t taken a similar approach, creating a veritable melting pot of pop sounds to create a universal amalgam that feels as progressive as it does familiar. KoKoro is a near-perfect, truly modernist indie pop album in both sound and spirit.