In 2005, Swede Emanuel Lundgren got some friends together to record a one-off EP project -- 29 friends to be exact. They were supposed to play one show. Word started spreading about the group and their amazing pop tunes and soon they were signed to EMI Sweden. The EP got a re-release and Lundgren started penning more tracks for a full-length, 2006’s pop-fest Let Me Introduce My Friends. The band started to play out more with whatever members could attend, and made their first trip to the states to play Lollapalooza in 2007, a video I would highly recommend seeking out. While it seems ridiculous to have a 28-member band (they lost one somewhere) and touring and splitting money must be a real bitch, when it comes to the studio they don’t have to hire any additional musicians. While about half of the members are solely background vocalists, the others can cover the basics of drums, percussion, guitars, bass and synths, as well piano, sax, clarinet, flute, trumpet, tuba, accordion, mandolin, ukulele and banjo.
Understandably, Lundgren and Co. don’t want to be pigeonholed into anyone’s misguided view that they are a shallow pop act or a gimmick. But let me just tell you that “The Painter” from their original EP is one of the catchiest feel-good songs ever. EVER. And maybe some people can’t see the sneaky complexities of the simple-seeming, perfectly assembled pop masterpiece that is “We’re from Barcelona” from their original EP (wisely reused on the first album). Sure, it only had two parts, but those two parts had Everest-sized hooks and they bounced them around instruments and added countermelodies. They had more subtle songs too; sure. “Jenny” quieted things down but you could still clap along; “The Saddest Lullaby” was restrained while still being anthemic. But on Who Killed Harry Houdini? the band focuses on these subtler tendencies, and while they are talented enough and prove they are not simpletons, the result is more of a grower than their debut but is overall a satisfying listen.
First single “Paper Planes” (for the last time, it’s not a M.I.A. cover; no over-used gunshot samples here) is the most like their first album in terms of bat-to-the-head hooks. Obviously, it rules. “Mingus” hints at the bombast of their first album, and they barely keep it from exploding. A catchy guitar 'n’ glockenspiel melody, handclaps and female backing 'ba ba ba-da-da-da's threaten to bust this thing open at any moment, but they cut it short before it has a chance. Had it appeared on Let Me Introduce they probably would have built the hook up over several more repeats. Maybe this way is preferable to overkill, and nevertheless it is one of my faves here.
I’m not crazy about opener “Andy.” It’s like ‘I’m from Barcelona as the Arcade Fire,’ with dark boomy backing music, orchestrated in a way like they are trying to hard to be artsy. The one track where they really cut loose is “Houdini,” but it’s with an angle that doesn’t sit right with the group: guitar-lead rock. With a bell-riding drumbeat and Darkness-style vocal shrieks near the end, the track isn’t a complete stinker but just feels weird coming from them. It sounds like a four- or five-piece -- not a 29-piece.
On the other side of things we have “Gunhild,” the most downright pretty track the band has penned. Playful French singer Soko joins Lundgren in a gorgeous duet over lush layers of keys, woodwinds and strings, with a light drum machine beat of static. “Headphones” feels right with another laid-back yet pushing drum machine and in-the-distance guitar chords. The melody of both the vocals and horns/glockenspiel are of the catchiest on the album, yet are light and inviting rather than overbearing.
Lyrically, Lundgren follows many of his same avenues and Who Killed is another set of feel-good tunes about friendship and full of nostalgia trips. Where Introduce had “This Boy,” here we have “Mingus”: “In my heart / Still a kid.” Where Introduce had “Jenny,” here we have “Andy” and “Ophelia”: “Ophelia had two cars / She’s driving away in one of them / The other one didn’t start / She couldn’t afford to bring it in.” Simple stuff, but it fits the tunes and it makes me happy. Lundgren is a little better here at not doing the ‘second verse, same as the first’ thing and we get a higher word count. Yet you will quickly learn the words and join in to fill that empty 29th spot in the band.
Another small problem is that too many of these songs (and on their last album, as well) end prematurely. The ‘verse/chorus/verse/extended chorus’ structure dominates this album of 2:30-3:00 tracks. Lundgren needs to write some bridges and extend the few he does have. As if trying to combat that problem in one fell swoop, the groups hits you with a closing seven-minute rock opera, which opens up with the ‘I’m from Barcelona Orchestra’ tuning up. The first part is slow and restrained but very sing-along: "Are you comin’ to get me now?" The second part has a “Queen Bitch” style clap-along acoustic/electric riff and flute and honking sax solos. The third section pulses forward and then breaks down. About five minutes in, as they are building and adding layers, they sneak a couple familiar hooks back in. First you’ll hear the return of the “Paper Planes” melody worked under the “Rufus” vocals. Then “Mingus” folds into the new tempo and he even restates the "Still a kid" theme. Very well-constructed, guys and gals -- well done. It’s like “Rufus” is some sort of reverse overture ending the album by reminding you of the great hooks that came earlier on.
I was a bit let down at first with this album because I stupidly wanted 10 more “We’re from Barcelona”s, but that would not be fun after the first few spins. Who Killed Harry Houdini? gives you some nibbles with instantly addictive tunes and then snags you permanently with growers and hushed, carefully crafted pop gems. Recommended for anyone who likes to feel good when they put on a record.