Graded on a Curve:
Death and Vanilla,
To Where the Wild Things Are

Formed in Malmö Sweden in 2007, Death and Vanilla largely reside at the intersection of post-rock and dream-pop, and in wielding a broad and savvy vocabulary of influences and a wide array of vintage equipment they’ve developed an engaging sound across a tidy discography. Their latest and first for Fire Records is To Where the Wild Things Are, out this week on LP/CD/digital. Sporting an excellent cover design, its use of Helvetica font recalling the ‘70s paperbacks of Penguin Books, it stands as Death and Vanilla’s best yet.

Death and Vanilla expand to a five-piece for the purposes of live performances, but for most of their existence they’ve been composed of Marleen Nilsson and Anders Hansson; with the recent addition of Magnus Bodin they are currently a trio. Ornate yet vibrant, Death and Vanilla are ripe with the sort of historically knowledgeable but forward-looking sonic construction that began emerging in the 1990s, particularly on the roster of the Too Pure label.

As stated, they transcend the standard influences; there’s psychedelia from the discerning end of the spectrum, e.g. the United States of America and Silver Apples, soundtrack material a la Morricone and Pink Floyd’s OST for Barbet Schroeder’s More, and electronic Library Music experimentation like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.

They also profess affinity with Krautrock, Sun Ra, Scott Walker, the ethereal drifting of Angelo Badalamenti and Julie Cruise, and yé-yé gals in full-on art mode; these last few elements reinforce a consistent, skillfully expressed pop inclination. Again, the overall thrust is very much in the tradition of ‘90s acts such as Stereolab, Pram, and Broadcast, though Death and Vanilla are far from copyists.

Their first proper release was a 4-song EP, the self-titled 2010 CD establishing a post-rock/Morricone milieu quite well if a bit less concisely after its expansion to seven tracks on 12-inch vinyl early in ‘14. Both original and reissue arrived through the Hands in the Dark label, the same folks responsible for Death and Vanilla’s debut full-length, also self-titled, in ’12.

The LP was a solid if still formative affair, though the “From Above” 45, released in ’13 on The Great Pop Supplement, raised the quality a notch. With the appearance of Vampyr later that year the group took a clear step forward; initially offered on cassette by Moon Glyph Tapes and given a double vinyl edition on hometown imprint Kalligrammofon in ‘14, Vampyr is a recording of a semi-improvised performance as live soundtrack to the 1932 masterpiece of atmospheric horror from the brilliant Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Vampyr’s physical formats are sold out, but the music, well worth inspection and likely to elevate in tandem with the images that inspired it, can be found on the group’s Bandcamp. However, its standalone achievement partially rests upon the redolence of Death and Vanilla’s endeavor to the atypical, boundary-stretching activities residing in the backgrounds of their influences.

Such an ambitious undertaking seems to have positively impacted their latest; where prior efforts were likeable but minor, To Where the Wild Things Are (a title, as one might suspect, drawn from Maurice Sendak’s enduring children’s book) is a very good album, at times inching into the proximity of great. It begins with “Necessary Distortions,” its recurring threads of fuzz guitar lending a hint of psych as the prominent and smart use of vibraphone and jagged electric keyboard lines enhance an environment of retro-futuristic noir.

The front portion features rhythmic urgency and Nilsson’s unperturbed vocals positioned deep in the mix, the latter section offering an instrumental climate topped with what sounds like strummed zither. After a quiet coda, “Necessary Distortions” tops six and a half minutes, a duration representative of Death and Vanilla’s comfort in stretching out.

“The Optic Nerve” is considerably shorter, its waves of rippling echo underscoring the studio as perhaps the trio’s most impressive instrument, though the breathiness of Nilsson’s singing isn’t far behind. And it’s her intonation, at least in part, that’s brought Death and Vanilla their comparisons to dream-pop, including mentions of Mazzy Star.

That’s not inapt, for Nilsson possesses the confident verve of a chanteuse, which is also where the references to yé-yé come in. But on To Where the Wild Things Are she’s ultimately in service to a stylistically broad assortment of songs; if invitingly melodic, “The Optic Nerve” ends with a short fragment that could’ve been grafted from the audio of a ‘50s sci-fi flick.

The LP does have a few numbers functioning effectively as singles; had “Arcana” materialized in the mid-‘90s, the pretty ditty might’ve grown into a modest Alterna-hit. But if attractive, the tune doesn’t skimp on the interwoven richness, and the same can be said “California Owls,” a tidy three and a half minutes of airy-pop gorgeousness followed by two more combining chirping birds and tones reminiscent of a distant calliope amidst the reliable retro-futurism.

It’s with “Time Travel” that the album moseys closest to Stereolab. A glimmering march carrying two superb passages of Nilsson’s syllables cloaked in reverberating ambiance, it’s maybe the most overtly pop moment on the disc. Well, except for “California Owls” and “Follow the Light,” To Where the Wild Things Are’s briefest selection. A prime showcase of aural layering (the ‘60s-ish organ tones are especially appealing), its ending contrasts with many of the selections here; minus a concluding redirection/segue, it simply fades out.

“Shadow and Shape” brings Nilsson to the fore, the surrounding music gradually increasing the intricacy of its weave, then dropping out and leaving her voice and the textures enveloping it to vaporize at the finish. But for “Hidden Reverse” she remains aloof until the finale approaches, only arising to accent what is essentially a sturdy, diversifying instrumental commencing in a vaguely Krautrock neighborhood and culminating on a street near the residence of Delia Derbyshire.

As it progresses To Where the Wild Things Are becomes less immediately pop graspable, though Death and Vanilla are diligent in focusing upon a unified sound. Bookended by a field-recording blended with a keyboard line that screams ‘70s British Broadcasting Corporation, the guts of “Moogskogen” dabble in an aura of fragile Brit-folk intensified by more zither and motifs suggesting or approximating flute and harpsichord.

The opening of “Something Unknown You Need to Know” retains the fragility as BBC-esque pulsations patiently intercede and then give way to a wash of psychedelia; it gathers precise rhythmical momentum and carries the LP to a strong conclusion. Death and Vanilla still have some room for growth, but To Where the Wild Things Are avoids flagrant flaws, its biggest hitch being a general lack of surprise as it subtly integrates previous advances to a pleasurable and promising result.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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