Release Date: Dec 4, 2012
Record label: The Control Group
While the emergence of another chilly, synth-dabbling Northern European band might seem commonplace at this point (especially after the success of Peter Bjorn and John, the Knife, Lykke Li, jj, Jens Lekman, and dozens of other similar groups), the benefit of the Swedish invasion’s sustained popularity is that it might invite attention to the lesser-known but no less fascinating artists that sit on its periphery. To wit, Niki and the Dove’s success as the next-in-line Scandinavian import might be a boon to the future of El Perro del Mar’s Sarah Assbring, a soft-rock songstress who’s eschewed the electronic edge of her fellow Swedes for something far more gentle but no less captivating. Though Pale Fire is Assbring’s fifth album, it often feels more like a sophomore effort, acting as both a follow-up to her breakthrough Love Is Not Pop and her second release following her departure from obscure Swedish label Hybris.
Pale Fire is, in itself, a provocative album title. Sarah Assbring has, for four albums now, proven herself a clever and worthy songwriter—her deceptively gentle lyrics betray their abject truculence, like the best of the Brill Building stalwarts with which she’s often compared. But Pale Fire—that’s deep. A Nabokov multi-textual classic named for a Shakespeare passage that references creative passion.
Over the years, Sarah Assbring, better known as El Perro Del Mar, has shaped both love and loss into the sound of sweet melancholy. Yet her latest album, Pale Fire, tempers the saccharine by adopting a coat of frost. Setting the stage for the following songs, the title track opens the record with a crisp horn holding out a few steady notes. Before long, Assbring softly chants conflicting emotions, singing, “Never grow tired of this pale, pale fire/Never get out of this pale, pale fire,” which merges with ever blooming and retracting layers of icy electronics.
In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the title refers not just to the 999-line poem at the center of the novel, but also to the poet’s peculiar habit of burning each prior draft of his completed verse in the “pale fire” of an incinerator. With her fourth stateside release, El Perro Del Mar (née Sarah Assbring) continues to flourish in a comparable cycle, once again emerging in full form from the ashes of a previous incarnation. Majestic and assured, Pale Fire completes El Perro Del Mar’s metamorphosis from bedroom chanteuse to full-fledged diva; rhythm has always been dominant in Assbring’s DNA, dating back to the Swede’s eponymous debut, where she tinseled a melancholic, Victoria Williams’ quaver atop the handclaps and tambourine hits of bathroom-mirror Motown.
As El Perro del Mar, Swedish songwriter Sarah Assbring slowly developed from the Kate Bush-evoking chamber indie of her earliest singles into a more layered pop sound, gradually employing more electronic elements as the years rolled on. With Pale Fire, she expands on the reference points of house, dub, and disco production that characterized her glowing 2009 album, Love Is Not Pop. The album keeps up the shattered drama that's colored all of El Perro del Mar's work from the start, with depressive undertones bubbling below the synthy sounds and Assbring's softly gliding vocals driving home an understated hopeless feel in even the most upbeat songs.
Sarah Assbring (who performs as El Perro Del Mar) is an expert at alchemizing melancholy into pop. But for all her dedication to the grey scale of human emotion, her previous output has varied wildly—from inscrutable pop classic (debut El Perro Del Mar) to the intriguing (Love is Not Pop), to the let’s-just-forget-it-happened downer (From the Valley to the Stars). On her fourth offering, the Swedish chanteuse has a found a new middle ground between the heartache and dance breaks.
Sarah Assbring’s fifth album is what fellow Swedish lady Robyn would sound like if she were a bit more human. That’s not to say Robyn’s lonely-robot electro isn’t totally great; just that Assbring takes the blueprint to warmer places, the difference between touching human flesh and metal. Most impressively, every song on ‘Pale Fire’ sounds a little like Yes’ 1983 hit ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’.
As El Perro del Mar, Sarah Assbring makes deceptively smooth music. She dabbles in disco, R&B and new wave, occasionally punctuating her melodies with dubby production that injects ripples of warmth into the icy, synthesized underpinnings. But while the rhythms may seem like invitations to dance - or at least sway - the lyrics are almost uniformly bleak, making Pale Fire a late contender for saddest album of the year.
In September 2011, El Perro del Mar posted the song "What Do You Expect" online. Comprising a collage of samples over a minimal beat, it was a protest track released shortly after the London riots. Considering that Sarah Assbring was better known for chronicling romantic relations over those between social classes, it was jarring to hear her deploy samples like "The police are not listening to them-- what do you expect?" Toward the end, in her characteristic sullen murmur, she delivers the lines, "Never grow tired of this pale, pale fire." It's a bit vague to be inflammatory on its own, but in context, it bore a certain poignancy.
Sarah Assbring’s fifth LP under the El Perro Del Mar moniker is entitled Pale Fire, which is a truly apt descriptor of the album’s 10 tracks – a collection of songs that sputter gently in the distance, but fail to blaze a trail towards anything memorable. “We can run away from the day,” Assbring gently pleads on “Hold Off the Dawn,” with an obfuscating mist surrounding her voice. Here and throughout the album, these attempts to sound sultry end up buried and lifeless.
El Perro Del Mar, aka Sarah Assbring, has been a stalwart of the Swedish indie-pop scene for more than half a decade, dealing in sweet, airy compositions that whisper of a resonant discomfort. On her fifth album, she discovers a new direction—and sounds all the better for it. Pale Fire opens with the title track, a horn section subtly but insistently ushering in the album.
Hers is a shivery presence, like moonlight on flesh. Martin Aston 2012 In the now-crowded pantheon of Scandinavian sirens/songbirds (delete where applicable), Gothenburg’s Sarah Assbring has sadly slipped to the back. Maybe the fact her nom de plume is Spanish for "The Dog of the Sea" means people think she’s from the Mediterranean – perhaps a region perceived as in some way un-hip? But her low public profile is probably more down to her equally low profile when she steps up to the microphone.
El Perro Del Mar “Don’t want to feel lonely,” sings El Perro del Mar — the recording name of the Swedish songwriter Sarah Assbring — from the isolation of the recording studio on her fifth album, “Pale Fire” (The Control Group). Love, particularly how elusive it is, is her continuing ….