Listening to Spark Large makes me think many things right off the bat. 1.) Sweden and Scandanavia’s rep for making great music lives up to the hype, rare enough in these days. 2.) Marching Band use incredibly lush accompaniments that always make me think of an unbelievably sunny, wonderful summer afternoon with a pretty girl in a yellow sundress. And, most importantly, 3.) they are really happy, and really, really good.
Unlike a lot of pop acts out of the northlands, and worldwide, this is one band with so little irony that it almost feels like there isn’t any. That’s pretty unusual, and even more unusual is that they manage to be ruthlessly, relentlessly upbeat without being, well, terrible. Everyone has at least one “feel good album” but I think it’s pretty common for that same album to be considered, at least by the audiophiles and pretentious among us, to also be a “guilty pleasure” album: Kylie, The Jonas Brothers, <insert terrible pop culture reference #3>. Marching Band’s music deftly avoids being bubblegum or insignificant on the twin, key strengths of being very well crafted and very well written.
One other thing that comes to mind when I listen to Erik Sunbring and Jacob Lind is how complex and textured their songs are while managing to be extremely focused and clear. A lot of great acts these days are using god knows how much instrumentation to their purpose, and many of them very well. The best example would probably be Animal Collective, who manage to use just about everything that makes noise in their albums, And while their recent, excellent Merriweather Post Pavilion finally brings a greater measure of focus to their extremely interesting textures, they still lack any semblance of being, well, happy, or even excited about making this music. Not so for Marching Band. From the very first listen you know that these guys had an absolute blast making this album. There is almost no way to listen to “For Your Love” or “Gorgeous Behavior” without a ridiculous smile crossing your face.
So the music itself. Well, again, it’s happy; it’s fun; it’s easy to listen to at home alone, on an iPod stuck moving through the Subway and insane streets of Shanghai, or with friends and a round of beer. As with Animal Collective, the first thing people will notice are the textures on these songs, which seem to be made of at least seven or eight layers at all times. The aforementioned “Gorgeous Behavior” has a basic, sing-songy guitar riff at the base, another layer of guitar with reverb, three or four levels of separately recorded harmonies, marimba, and what sounds like a recorder—all in the background. But what is most striking, and crucial to the song working so well, is that none of these elements fight to be more noticeable or vital than the vocal melody or the underlying guitar riff. The rest of the album is similar: a simple, catchy, hooky guitar and an upbeat, beautifully sung melody, with harmonies on top of harmonies behind them.
That may sound similar to another standout album from 2008, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut. But while FF concentrate on an ethereal (and ephemeral) feeling, layering harmonies on top to create an atmosphere that moves you outside the music itself, Marching Band doesn’t care about atmospherics. If you stripped away all of the “extras,” these would still be solid pop songs, capable of garnering a small and supportive fan base on their own. For Marching Band, texture is just a means to enhance what are, essentially, really catchy pop tunes.
Of course, there are missteps. “Letters” starts out just a little too sappy, a little too much like a happy Chris Carraba. Luckily, the accompaniment saves this, and other weak songs, like “Special Treatment,” from dragging the album down.
“Gorgeous,” which is the first single from the band, will probably be the most instantly likable of any of the tracks on the album, but the real standouts here are: “Everything,” a model of the slow build pop song that Beach House do so well, and “Make-Up Artist,” with some great punning and a feeling that brings to mind the best Belle & Sebastian songs. It’s also one of the few songs on the album that does have any irony or bite to it, and it’s a welcome shift right there in the middle of the album. The relentlessly bright music serves as a contrast to the mean-spirited lyrics, much like Lily Allen and countless other “happy tune, sad words” artists, but the textures manage to give the words a feeling like an early warning, the sunniness hinting that a positive change is just around the corner. The final track, “Sparkle” will likely be a lot of people’s favorite, as well as many people’s least-liked, and for the same reasons. This track may be their mission statement, starting with semi-sad riff and lyrics, with Marching Band wondering “where did you get that sparkle?” Then the sad, yearning first verse leads to a “spark” (hard not to use that pun here) of a little electric g-tar riff and an explosion of sounds, including an excellent string section, that strongly evokes the track’s title. It’s a large spark, and it’s a lot of fun to hear.