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Niki & The Dove


[Sub Pop; 2012]

By ; May 25, 2012 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Some of the best pop songs exist in subtleties and single moments. A song might not justify its own existence until a key chord change late in the tune, or a throwaway counter-melody caught in an echo’s decay, or the way a guitar sputters to life through a mad haze of feedback, or even in a singer’s delivery of a single line as it’s coated with a blast of true and fleeting earnestness. Those little moments make everything else, the legwork of a song, feel like they’re there in service of that single moment, propping it up in all its cathartic glory. But often times, due to how we go about discussing songs and records, that one moment can feel like something personal – something the listener feels alone in being aware of.

On Instinct, Swedish duo Malin Dahlstrom and Gustaf Karlof, who go by the name Niki & The Dove, deliver a full-length debut packed full of single-worthy tracks, but it’s an experience more rewarding after its songs shed their exteriors following a number of repeated listens, instead becoming moment-to-moment affairs. The record is full of big, anthemic choruses and delicious, cosmic-colored synth hooks, but the tracks are littered with a never-content sense of production detail, pieced together like a bass record by way of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” or Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”. In the pantheon of Nordic pop, Dahlstrom and company sit somewhere between Robyn’s feminine, club-friendly electro and Lykke Li’s sincere balladry (with a dash of Deep Cuts-era The Knife). It’s an album like Cut Copy’s Zonoscope from last year that isn’t untimely in its tread of a certain decade’s synth swells, but stands way out by executing with a deeper and more exacting sense of taste.

Instinct thrives on the chemistry between Karlof’s thick, restful production and Dahlstrom’s angelic, soaring vocals.  Karlof likes his alternately toothy and creamy synths, with enough body to give Dahlstrom’s otherwise tender feminine alto some resonant girth. The chorus of opener “Tomorrow” is staggering in the abrupt shift from its lapping nebulas synth waves and chittering percussion, Dahlstrom nearly whispering in introverted wisps before some blunt solidity punches up through the track, synths clawing skyward and vocal layers too numerous to keep track of as the singer belts hungrily above it all. Dahlstrom is a dexterous enough vocalist to clamp down on whatever Karlof throws her way, keeping his borderline histrionic production tendencies reigned in by her deliberate momentum. It helps that ribbons of decayed backing vocals are woven throughout the whole album, but otherwise, man, Instinct is something of a production marvel.

The whole record is precisely and roomily arranged and retains an overall percussive clarity, giving the kick a rounded weight and the peripheral snare clicks and lite-brite synths an outward-facing kinetic quality, each detail pressing prominently against the fabric of each track. “The Drummer” clamps itself to the listener’s brainstem – the consonant sixteenth-note synth hook dinging each end of the stereo field at its chorus is almost assaultive – and “Last Night” overflows with neon pastels running in bruised rivulets between the lackadaisical kick and sputtering textural intricacies. Then there are the unlikely instrumental flourishes like the guitar plucks on “In Our Eyes” and “Mother Protect,” the warped cello sample on “The Fox,” the standup bass on “Under The Bridges,” or the textured strains of percussion lining every inch of Instinct. It sounds like Karlof has gone over the album with a fine-toothed comb, cramming textures in every corner he can find before cutting them up again and making them do weird, uncanny things. Meanwhile, Dahlstrom conquers it all.

But ultimately, there are those moments: the way Dahlstrom shifts the vocal melody on the last chorus of “Tomorrow,” the desperate strain of her voice finishing out the last verse of “The Drummer,” the jaw-dropping transition from chorus to coda on “The Fox,” the freewheeling vocal exultation before the track explodes on the colossal eight-minute tribal ceremony, clap-along closer “Under The Bridges.” Instinct is such a strong pop record from start to finish because the duo focuses their efforts well beyond strong pop songwriting and instead on in-the-moment intricacy, creating a record that’s immensely rewarding on repeated listens, remaining imprinted in resonant bursts well after its vibrant luminescence has faded.


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