On their debut, Return to N.Y., vocalist AK von Malmborg and musician/vintage-sound fetishist Mattias Olsson, they of the Swedish boy-girl duo AK-Momo, visit un-trodden musical territory. But the album's sound, built from lesser-used vintage instruments and a vocal style that sometimes seems stuck in Prohibition-era speakeasies, feels as if it has been traversed through and through.
Von Malmborg's voice is wrapped in an elfin ribbon that will likely draw comparisons to Joanna Newsom. But whereas Newsom's voice tends to come across as some hippie joke (an acquired taste, if you will), Malmborg's warble plays on more recognizable influences, including Billie Holiday and the vocal phrasing of big-band-era jazz singers. She steals the show particularly when singing about fucking on a hill in Greenwich Park, as well as on the shuffling "Cold War of the Hearts" and the grand-sweeping "Hollywood," both of which allow her to flex her range and control to extremes.
Olsson's music, composed on vintage instruments, never fights von Malmborg for the spotlight, but it's as intriguing as its own entity. Olsson's toolbox includes the following:
The Optigan, a plastic organ that uses clear LP-sized records to imitate the sounds of other instruments, considered revolutionary in the seventies until people realized it kind of sucked. Devo's a fan, and Tom Waits used its organ tones on "Frank's Wild Years."
Orchestron, a cousin to the Optigan, considered to be just as shitty.
Mellotron, one of the first sample-playback keyboards, used by just about every major rock act ever slapped with the adjective "psychedelic."
The music on Return to N.Y. blossoms from each instrument's shortcomings, which keep the arrangements simple and intriguing. Recorded almost as an afterthought to the vocals, the music sounds inconsequential, as if Malmborg is singing karaoke over whatever music happens to spring up. But as the album progresses, Malmborg's voice becomes less interesting and Olsson's sonic experiments gain prominence (not volume), though it's doubtful that this effect is intentional.
"Time for the Muse" loops quickly and sounds like a sinister RZA beat, "Human Clones" spins into chaos, and "Women to Control," with its subtly brushed percussion, has a chorus accompanied by soaring strings and vocal loops. Some percussion-laden songs even veer in to Portishead territory but without ever actually feeling like trip-hop.
AK-Momo makes the type of music that doesn't demand attention, so Return to N.Y. will likely go unheralded until it sprouts up on numerous best-of lists at the end of the year. To an extent, it's better this way. AK-Momo can be your little secret. Cherish it like the treasure it is.
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