It's easy to imagine what drew AK von Malmborg and Mattias Olsson
together, at least musically. Both seem to come directly from another
era: he with his antique keyboards and synthesizers, with funny names
like Mellotron and Orchestron, and she with her high-pitched, pre-rock 'n'
roll singing voice. Their first release as AK Momo, Return to New York,
sounds like a relic from the 1940s that has suddenly resurfaced and been
tweaked for the modern audience.
At first, von Malmorg's high voice keeps listeners at a distance. It's
not buttery and smooth; it's not cathartic and soulful. She ain't no
hollaback girl. But it's enticing, veering between steely and vulnerable
in its very female way. Across the blogosphere, she's drawing
comparisons to Kate Bush, another singer whose voice hovered in the
higher ranges and somehow sounded naked, exposing its vulnerability,
muscles and fatty bits. I was a huge Kate Bush fan, and the more I
listen to Return to N.Y., the more I find myself buying into the
Bushness. The disc has also drawn comparisons to Portishead, but it's
less like trip-hop and more like what Beth Gibbons did when she stepped
away from Portishead and collaborated with Rustin Man (Paul Webb). Their Out of Season also needed a Victrola more than it did a CD player.
There's a hiss throughout many of the tracks on Return to N.Y., giving
the music the warm, staticky feel of a vinyl recording. And the tracks
that don't sound like they're coming from vinyl, and even some that do
hiss, sound slightly warped, like old recordings that sat too long in
the heat or the damp of someone's attic. It all lends an air of
theatricality to the music, though like a dramatic friend, after it
becomes familiar you no longer feel so much like it's begging for
attention. You can just enjoy its charms.
On "Only the Stars," von Malmborg's steely and soft sides both take the
spotlight. She sings about a night in Greenwich Park with a lover. "I
fucked you; and you fucked me," she sings. The word is jarring in the
gauzy old-world setting the music conjures. It pulls you right out of
that gauzy world and makes von Malmborg seem tougher than she does on
other tracks. But then she adds, after a sigh, "so tenderly," and
sweetly follows with "and only the stars were watching; the shy, shy
stars were watching." As she brings in the shy stars, the synthesizers
bring in the sound of a swelling string section, giving life to names
like Orchestron and Optigan. The song is both sweet and street smart. The same is true of "Women to Control": Von Malmborg's innocence turns
to sneering as she asks some guy about the prowling and posing he does
to get women. The chorus "You want women to control, to fit in some
old fashioned role" is backed by a loop of coos and ahhhs, probably
von Malmborg's own.
While the vintage sounds can sometimes be off-putting, too cold or too
quirky, there is plenty that beckons the listener back. Mattias infuses
the vintage warbling with inspired loops, samples and beats, so just as
your mind begins to slip into a music-history-lesson daze, something
comes along to get your hips shaking or your toes tapping. The shuffling
beat of "Cold War of the Hearts" is hard to sit still through, as is the
bossa nova feel of "World Traveller." And "Time for the Muse" gives
credence to the Portishead comparisons.
The disc ends with the haunting "Boys and Girls." It's full of glitches
and hisses, backed by an eerie and ominous keyboard. Von Malmborg sings,
"Where does hell end and heaven start for boys and girls with brave
haircuts and shaken hearts?" It's hard to say whether the question is
more fitting for grown-ups who are spooked by life and love, or for my
children and their little friends, who are just now learning that the
cruelty of friends or family members can be just as spooky as monsters.
And it's hard to figure out who has the braver haircuts: those forced by
style or those forced by Mom and Dad. There's a lot of space between
innocence and corruption, and between vintage and modern. AK Momo are
here to bridge the gaps.