Wildbirds & Peacedrums always seemed to be heading toward a concept album. Their first two LPs had thematic elements that, while not immediately held together, were loose reflections on the line between emotionality and reason. The music often followed suit the dichotomy set by the band’s moniker, with two contrasting dispositions creating a balanced whole. When the members of the Swedish duo — Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin — weren’t creating mini-landscapes built upon steady beats and hypnotic vocals, they were finding themselves on the expressive fringes of complete chaos. It’s a formula they have pulled off exceptionally well, attracting listeners for both the infectious intrigue of their sound and the duo’s willingness to experiment.
With Rivers, they’ve finally made a leap into those conceptual waters. Divided into two halves — Retina for A-side and Iris for the B-side — Rivers ruminates with lyrics and imagery that tussles between nature and human desire. From there, the concept gets murky. The record starts off rather tame, with two five-minute marches built upon a choir of vocal layers and a steady, simple percussion. The third track, “Under Land and Sea,” slows it down even more by doing away with the instruments altogether and instead utilizing a choir of “oohs and aahs,” which make the track sound almost like a tragic, 16th-century hymnal.
Cohesiveness aside, Wallentin’s vocals over the first-quarter of Rivers remain mostly docile; she never does that commendable Nina Simone freak-out impression she did on Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ first two releases. Her style always worked best when she let training go to the wayside in a tug and pull with the percussion and really let some animated soul out. With the final two tracks of Retina, she continues to keep it intimate; the musicians pick up the pace a bit, but they seem more content exploring the subtle vocal-heavy landscapes they have built. Wallentin sings to conclude the A-side, “We are peeling off the layers.” Indeed, they’ve put on their explorer caps, although it sounds less adventurous and more like they’ve become locked inside a jazzy, after-hours monastery with Nico’s Desertshore on the turntable.
Before the beginning of Iris, Wildbirds & Peacedrums give you 20-plus seconds of silence to apparently contemplate, mediate and take a bathroom break. With the spacious silence of Retina, the B-side seems in position for an outburst or two. With “The Wave,” this anticipation is encouraged, as the layers begin to be put back on with the addition of a xylophone, keyboard and drums. These instruments replace the choirs of Retina and are used primary for the placidly, uplifting B-side that shows the two orienting themselves more toward pop conventionality in their own, unusual ways.
While Iris has its moments, particularly the precious prayer-like laudation “The Course,” the band never really lets itself go, keeping mostly tame with repetitive rhythms that result in more hypnotic meditations, foregoing any of those really energetic, explosive moments found well-placed throughout the duo’s first two records. A case could be made that this is a newfound maturity, and without a doubt Rivers is no second-hand attempt. However, sans even a single convulsive whirlwind, Rivers is more musical wallpaper than a masterpiece.