Review Summary: East meets West in a simultaneously beguiling and dazzling experience.
Whether it is for spiritual, artistic, or less, ahem, savory reasons, the East has always been a musical mecca for soul-searching bands. From the Beatles experiment with Indian music to Pete Doherty’s brief (and ultimately failed) excursion to Thailand to get clean, the Eastern world has, for all globalization has done since the ‘60s, retained an exciting mystique and a wealth of cultural traditions that many musicians have found impossible to ignore. Few, however, have found their tours as treacherous as Victoria Bergsman, former singer of Swedish pop band the Concretes. Accosted by ultra-religious locals as soon as she arrived in rural Pakistan, the single Bergsman improvised, pretending her sound engineer was her husband so that they could travel around the country without further problems. Given Bergsman’s penchant for delicately intricate indie pop, one might expect such a tension-filled trip would have thrown a wrench in the proverbial songwriting gears, but East of Eden comes off as an impossibly relaxed, genuinely well-constructed album that meshes East and West improbably well.
Many an album recorded in foreign environments has come off as patronizing or a fraud, taking only the merest of cultural touchstones or instruments and calling it fusion when it is more often a parody. Even for all the hoopla regarding the Beatles’ stay in India, Eastern styles were really apparent only on a few of their efforts. East of Eden, then, is a rarity, an album that from start to finish immerses itself in the Pakistani culture but retains that quintessentially Swedish pop edge that Bergsman long ago mastered. It’s an exciting and, at first listen, a perplexing sort of record. Few familiar with the Concretes or the last Taken By Trees record will know how to reconcile Bergman’s soft vocals with sitar flourishes and male backing vocals wailing in traditional Pakistani tongues. But as this deceptively short album gently unwinds its way through the mountains and villages of the countryside, it’s clear that Bergsman remains just as comfortable behind these alien textures as she does behind a piano and multi-layered harmonies.
Opening track “To Lose Someone” sets the template for what’s to come, opening with a light acoustic guitar melody before a swell of instrumentation surfaces, subtle tablas and dhol working off the rhythm while a flute sighs in the background. Bergsman’s vocals remain restrained throughout the track and the rest of the album, creating a tangible but not overpowering atmosphere of exotic locales and the kind of images normally reserved for National Geographic articles. Most of all, it’s delightfully understated – nothing here is forced, and when the haunting wailing of a guest vocalist closes out the song in intriguing fashion, it comes off as undeniably genuine rather than an opportunistic genre theft.
Tender and exquisitely emotive with even the barest whisper, Bergsman is of course the thread that holds everything together. Fans of her earlier work won’t be surprised to see her do quiet here, but they might be shocked at how effortlessly her vocals, which run the gamut from standard indie-pop love tales to a Herman Hesse poem sung entirely in Swedish, fit into this worldly tapestry. Amidst tribal percussion and a bansuri flute on “Watch The Waves” Bergsman’s ethereal pipes combine nicely with the tune’s dreamy tone. Her declaration to “hold you for a hundred years / take away your greatest fears” on the sprightly “Day By Day,” meanwhile, transforms it into a sort of “Young Folks” for the Eastern crowd, with its village dance drum line and poppy woodwind refrain.
When Bergsman strays too far from her roots, like on the drone-y, ambient Swedish-language closer “Bekannelse,” (that aforementioned Hesse poem), it’s too easy for her personality to get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, “Wapas Karna,” the ill-advised field recording of a traditional Sufi folk song performed entirely by untrained locals, suffers mightily from zero contribution by the Swedish chanteuse. But when Bergsman is on, East of Eden produces some otherworldly gems, from “Watch The Waves” to the expertly produced sonic threads of “The Greyest Love of All,” where a slippery sitar line, flutes, and Bergsman’s soothing vocals collude in a mesmerizing display of musical cross-pollination, and a damn fine pop song at that. And that’s not even mentioning the spot-on backing vocals of Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (no stranger to weird out-of-country experiments) on the lovely ode “Anna,” nor the superb cover of that band’s “My Girls” (here retitled, of course, “My Boys”). With traditional Sufi instrumentation, all buzzing harmonium and lacking even a hint of electronic noise, the song is a revelation, a hypnotic 180-degree shift in direction that reinvents one of 2009’s best songs and makes it perhaps more relevant than ever in the context of East of Eden’s origins.
It’s tough to compare how this stacks up to Bergsman’s previous work or that of any other similar artist, as Bergsman has not so much gone in a new direction as totally teleported herself and her listeners to an entirely new world. Few can make such an out-of-left-field experiment work and, better yet, not come off as unbearably pretentious doing it. East of Eden is not a perfect record, and it will definitely not be for everyone. But for those who put the time into it, who revel in the gossamer musical layers that, more than anything else, joyously create an atmosphere to get lost in, it’s a simultaneously beguiling and dazzling experience.