We join Philco Fiction at their international germination but over eight years into their career. The Norwegian trio (website) are warming us with ballads, but not ordinary ones. Stomachs do flips and journo brains get a bit sweaty. Take It Personal (stream it here) is a neon gas heater of sound, driving down artificial, impersonal warmth onto your head.
This is a very unusual record. Philco rush from Florence & The Machine esque soaring pop ballad to electro anthem, to orchestra-led avant garde experimentation. Throughout, The Knife’s off-kilter unpredictable bombast runs through the tracks. First there's the confident but dispassionate female vocal like Karin Dreijer Andersson and then there's the unnerving changes of atmosphere between sideways pop splashes (like The Knife's Deep Cuts), dark twists (like Silent Shout) and orchestras (like Tomorrow, In a Year). The confusing undertones of sophomore and potential breakthrough Take it Personal are endless.
Take It Personal won’t so much hit you, as lower you gently into a cauldron of bubbling stew. The introduction, ‘Help!’, uses dark, rumbling bass reminiscent of Fever Ray before breaking into a soaring electro anthem of safer pop chart climbs. Even then, Turid Alida Solberg’s voice belies the song's familiarity, keeping it tethered to a dark undercurrent. Slowly, Philco's air of definiteness comes apart. ‘The Youth’ opens with creepy synths and the soundtrack to a child tiptoeing in fairy-tale haunted woods. Violins, cellos (?) and whirring gadgetry in the bridge show that this record might indeed be one odd mother. Streaks of ‘One For You’ or ‘Rock Classics’ from Deep Cuts break out as ‘The City’ confirms our expectations: Gloomy, uncertain, dark…congratulations- you are into Philco Fiction's mad mad world.
The band navigate genres and styles like a croupier shuffling cards. From ‘Finally’ onwards, they let rip and open up into a plethora of directions that even the most able reviewer would find daunting. 'Finally' opens with XX-like guitars that join broad strokes of gentle piano chords part-way through. Into six minute number ‘Too Nice’, and the slow-burning sound starts to get asphyxiating; warped, almost, as it progresses. The section comes to a head with ‘I Want You’, an edgy track that pulsates with non sequitur lyrics a la that Swedish duo (once again):
"My intentions are no longer good. My intentions aren't acting like they should. I never decide what to eat. I never lose my sleep."
It builds to a gloriously melodic soulful climax, twirling to victory.
Now for the most surprising part. Seconds after the layered, triumphant climax, a delicate folk number eases into ear-shot. Pizzicato violins? Joanna Newsom? Almost. With Turid's soothing, swooning elegance, this particularly stunning juxtaposition of songs finally blows out. Snaking its path, calming you down, 'Too Close' ably steers you out of madness, towards sobriety and into the next section. The diversity on this album, but particularly, these four middle tracks, is amazing. Each one is boldly sonically independent. They stare you down with such confident directness that even on repeated listens you forget what you’ve just heard once the next track's begun. Take It Personal demands it. It demands all your focus. 'Take It Personal' is very apt indeed.
The final three tracks are no less unusual. ‘Horizon’, the most upbeat number on the album preens with sparkle. It's easy to see why lady vocalist led electro acts have had such blog exposure this year: with double-track recording, Turid's voice comes out in a way that I don't think a male vocalist's could.
Take It Personal is one of my favourite records of 2011 so far, and one of the most unclassifiable, deep, stunning albums broadly fitting within the parameters of popular alternative music I’ve ever heard. There isn’t a duffer, and even towards the end when you finally think you've consolidated the swathes of sonic territory there are to contend with, 80s pop inspired ‘Time is a Fly’ comes in and smashes the little picket-fence you think you've built to house it. If someone could tell me from where Philco Fiction draw their inspiration apart from ‘everywhere’ I would be interested to hear it. The way music can be in the self-referential, post-modern internet world is an incredible thing. And it’s not for the first time that I love it. Philco Fiction, I hope, will become one of the world's most popular new alternative bands.
Out Now on Brilliance Records (label here).