When my wife heard Cat Power's You Are Free after it was released in 2003, she said it was "something we'd be proud of if our three-year-old daughter wrote it." This criticism was a little excessive, but there was some truth in there; after all, there is an incredibly fine line between naive simplicity and intentional minimalism. The same battle is present with Until Death Comes, the much-blogged-about debut by Swedish songstress Frida Hyvönen. The difference is that Hyvönen achieves this balance to much better effect.
Originally released last year on the Concretes' Licking Fingers label, Until Death Comes gained Hyvönen many rave reviews and a loyal following in her native Sweden. It seems strange that Hyvönen, whose lead instrument is a piano, should come from the same former Kalmar Union nation that brought us copper, ABBA, In Flames, and Opeth. I'm sure the irony isn't lost on the singer, whose succinct melodies and clever lyrics recently landed her an opening spot on Jens Lekman's summer tour and a signing with Secretly Canadian. Her voice sounds like Eve's Plum-era Vitamin C meets the good aspects of Joni Mitchell, and her melodies have been compared to Carole King, although you can often hear similarities to Rufus Wainwright's balladry or ex-Marry Me Jane singer Amanda Kravat in her minor-chord piano tones.
There are some shining moments on Until Death Comes, including opener "I Drive My Friend," with her solo Lennon-esque dual-tracked vocals and That Dog-esque harmonies, or the cold, wintry chill of her tribute to the Big Apple, "N.Y." The album's best moments are the chilly, empty-room songs such as outstanding closer "Straight Thin Line," where Hyvönen's voice rings gently, like some of Nina Persson's vocal work on the Cardigans' slower songs. But the defining song on this frustratingly short album is the earnest adolescent confessional, "Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child," in which Hyvönen blushes over the reasons for teenage sexual escapades: "the feeling of pride and the loneliness do it."
Between Hyvönen's knack with a pop melody, her sincere and thoughtful lyrics, and the overall minimalism of the album's arrangements, Until Death Comes is an honest, engaging affair worthy of multiple listens. There isn't a pop song on it as catchy as "He War" from Cat Power's record, but the ballads are far more intriguing, the art direction on Hyvönen's album is more appropriate and, ultimately, it's a more enjoyable affair. As to whether or not my wife thinks it's better than music made by a three-year-old, the jury's still out.
"I Drive My Friend" video
"You Never Get Me Right" MP3
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