I’M FROM BARCELONA’S debut, Let Me Introduce My Friends, was a charming, quirky little piece of indie “choir” pop. It featured lyrics like “Damn!/Oversleeping against/Damn!/I can’t believe I did it again,” and a song that compared getting the chicken pox to first love (“Chicken Pox.”) Such recap is necessary to understand the sort-of-drastic left turn Who Killed Harry Houdini? takes. The twee, almost embarrassing sentiments are still here, but the charm factor has been dialed down; gone are the group vocals that made lines like “I have built a treehouse/Nobody can see us/Cause it’s a me and you house” work. Basically, I’m From Barcelona is trying to be a different, more somber band this time around.
Which is why everything here has a nice sheen of artificial solemnity to it. The sing-along that begins “Andy” sounds more like a bunch of people groaning together than making music. Lines like “There’s a big old man/In his underpants,” are immediately accompanied by redemptive qualifications like “He plays the clarinet every night/Trying hard to figure it out.” Actually, that might just be saying he’s trying hard to figure out how to play the clarinet—I’m not entirely sure. Quiet instrumentation highlights Emmanuel Lundgren and Soko’s nearly a capella voices on “Gunhild.” (“I know that you are hiding/In there . . . And if I let you out/Is it okay if I let you out?” Lundgren sings, sounding far more convincing than you might imagine.) “Little Ghost,” starting with the more-than-slightly creepy lines, “I know that I’m scary/But you don’t have to be afraid/I’ll come another Tuesday/I’ll come another Saturday.” But with Lundgren’s soaring voice and pinpointed enunciation, is one of those songs that slowly works its way into your heart.
Songs like “Headphones” are where I’m From Barcelona is at its best—slightly off-center, whimsical pop songs. Lundgren sings: “They can take me/Anywhere I want/I put my headphones on/I put my headphones on.” Ironically (but quite intentionally), the next song is self- explanatorily titled “Music Killed Me.” Despite being overwrought and gimmicky, the latter partially works on the strength of Lundgren’s vocal melody and a few unexpected synthesizers.
Who Killed Harry Houdini?is more imitative than it’s predecessor, but it’s not markedly worse off for it. “Houdini,” a far more standard indie rock track than anything on Let Me Introduce My Friends, demands instant placement on your “Catchiest Songs of 2008″ list. The band may not radically distinguish themselves from sounding like just-another-indie-band, but they do their best to stray from simple formulas or methods.
There’s lots of symphonic touches, with a noticeable emphasis on the horn section —with lots of saxophone and clarinet—but the arrangements and embellishments are almost always restrained. They act their part, often carrying crucial melody lines, but mostly do their work in the background. Who Killed Harry Houdini? is full of newfound balances for the band. Balances between Lundgren and his now (it would seem) mostly superfluous back-up band (which is comprised of over twenty members); between the charming childhood influences of yore and a clumsy grasp at lyrical maturity; and the balance between the whimsical indie-pop of their debut and some ill-defined, vague new sound. The only song that really highlights the “new sound” is seven minute album closer “Rufus.” It packs everything—a sing-along, a bustling horn section, three time changes, fuzzy electric guitar tones—into one perfect tome.
Long story short, this is competent pop/rock for the dedicated indie crowd. Even in the thralls of mimicry, the songs come out modestly likeable. They may steal from the Arcade Fire and downplay the elements that made their debut notable, but it’s still gratifying in its own way.
Timothy Zila is a Patrol music critic.
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