GIRL OF THE YEAR Among Assbring's current inspirations is Lou Reed's "dream of a pure love in a dirty world."
Few contemporary singers achieve as perfect a confluence of sound and image as Sarah Assbring. It's deeply reassuring to hear mournful, stylized '60s pop coming out of a melancholic beanpole who resembles a recently bereaved Edie Sedgwick. Assbring, who records under the name El Perro del Mar, brings her forlorn music and admirable posture to the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre this Friday.
Fewer than five years ago — primed by the likes of H&M, the Cardigans, and the fancy whistles of Peter Bjorn and John — the American listening public was besieged by Swedes. Göteborg became the Scandinavian Seattle, exporting indie-rockers at an alarming rate — and with a few notable exceptions, these artists offered charmingly skewed updates on rock genres associated with more southerly climes.
In the midst of this Scandimania, in 2006, Assbring released her homonymous debut on Brooklyn indie the Control Group. The single, "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)," is an ethereal pastiche of girl-group harmonies, Wall of Sound production values, and a simple gospel refrain. The rest of the album sounds like the aftermath of Sweden's saddest break-up. Minor acoustic chords support spare, graceful vocals delivered in a soprano that threatens to crack. The record is easy to love for its melodic despond, and people embraced it, their ardor fueled by publicity photos of a lanky Assbring traipsing through the fields in an elegantly wrinkled sack dress.
Her performance style also didn't hurt. She plays while staring into the middle distance, as though addressing a lost love or an unseen director. There is a soothing clarity to both her music and her presence — think Jeanne Moreau singing "Le tourbillon" in Jules et Jim.
In spite of a considerable tailwind, El Perro del Mar's second US release, 2008's From the Valley to the Stars, did not fare very well. Religious themes mingled with fragmentary hooks, desolate arrangements, and endlessly repetitive lyrics. Depressing to the point of torpor, the record faded almost immediately. Last winter, Assbring reassured listeners concerned for her well-being with a third release and a new leather jacket.
Love Is Not Pop, a tiny album of only seven songs, returns to the sunnier landscape of her debut. Although the lyrics purport to be about a break-up, the sounds are far warmer than those of their predecessor, helped along by handclaps and multi-track vocals. Producer Rasmus Hägg of renowned Swedish electronic duo Studio brings astonishing texture to Assbring's bittersweet melodies. And the songs themselves are well-crafted tracks that go in unexpected directions — even as they fit snugly into a whole.
Assbring lists her current influences as Lou Reed and a Bruce Weber photo of River Phoenix. She does a gentler, spookier cover of the former's "Heavenly Arms," citing (in a blog post) Uncle Lou's "dream of a pure love in a dirty world" as the inspiration behind the album. She has also set G.K. Chesterton's inspirational poem "The Great Minimum" to church organ.