In the Norwegian music world, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm is the equivalent of a decorated veteran. He’s been nominated for the Spellemansprisen (the Grammys of Norway) four times, and he has won thrice. He started the record label Feedelity more than ten years ago; has put out a generous handful of EPs, singles, and collaborations; has remixed everyone from Best Coast to Roxy Music to Franz Ferdinand. Lindstrøm might not be well known in America, but his reputation elsewhere is ironclad. He’s a consistent, creative producer and musician who clearly possesses a sensitive ear (or even two ears).
For all of his output, Lindstrøm has only released three official LPs: first 2008’s Where You Go I Go Too, and now two in 2012. Six Cups of Rebel, notable for featuring Lindstrøm’s own vocals for the first time, came out in March. New album Smalhans is free of vocals. In comparison to Six Cups of Rebel, it has less forward momentum and an energy that’s much harder to pinpoint. Six Cups of Rebel was confused and overly murky at times, but it seemed momentous. Here, there are six tracks that sound like one another, plus on radio edit: space disco sextuplets and an adopted little sibling.
[Side note: at the end of 2010, Simian Mobile Disco released a compilation called Delicacies, with each track named after unusual foods. “Aspic,” “Sweetbread,” you get the idea. Lindstrøm has followed a similar path on this album, naming his tracks after Norwegian dishes: “Va-fle-r” (waffles), “Rà-àkõ-st” (grilled vegetables), “Eg-ged-osis” (what happens when you pulverize eggs and sugar in a blender). Both Simian Mobile Disco’s and Lindstrøm’s tracklists contain more oddball allure than the tracks themselves! Is this some sort of food name curse?]
Synesthetic exercise: write down some images that come to mind when listening to Smalhans. A box of safety pins falling on the ground. A doctor stabbing you with many needles. Basketballs bouncing in unison. Aliens doing the Electric Slide. Aerobics class. Very gentle electroshock therapy. A quantum physics equation. Now, what adjectives do these images have in common? Predictable, measurable, simultaneous, odd, piquant, exhausting.
One shouldn’t have to try so hard to associate images with the songs on this particular album—all of which have accent-laden titles, and all of which follow the same formula of thorny disco with atmospheric background. Music without vocals or traditional pop structures should give the listener something else significant to latch onto: tone, novelty, complexity, wonder, shock value, something. But the songs on Smalhans slip through fingers, too slick to stick to anything. There is no wonder when all the songs sound the same, when there’s not a gosh darned crescendo to be found on even the six-and-a-half minute songs.
My criticism doesn’t have anti-disco roots, either. The genre of disco isn’t the problem. Besides, Lindstrøm told The Daily that “in Norway, there was no ‘Disco sucks’ campaign,” meaning his perspective is more or less severed from the American idea of what disco is. And that’s evident in the music. Lindstrom’s creations may be predictable and odd, but they’re never cheesy—the watchword of anti-disco maniacs.
All of the exciting mess that Lindstrøm was working through on his first album this year has been cleaned up and scrubbed away. All it takes is a little sonic friction for a bland song to become compelling, and Smalhans is frictionless—adroit alien music, not intended for human consumption. Go listen to Six Cups of Rebel and wiggle in the humanity of it. You won’t find much of it here.