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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1503

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Thomas Dybdahl: Science
by George Graham

(Recall/Ryko 10889 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/7/2007)

One aspect of the world music scene that I find most intriguing is the way artists will mix previously very different styles and cultures, often resulting in a fresh, engaging sound. Sometimes it takes someone from outside the usual locations to be sufficiently unfettered by preconceived ideas about what styles are supposed to fit together. This week we have an example of someone from a First World country who uses conventional pop influences and yet comes up with something that is quite distinctive. He is Thomas Dybdahl from Norway, and his new CD is called Science.

Thomas Dybdahl is in his mid 20s and has been releasing recordings in his home country since 2000, with his first full album issued in 2002. Since then, he has become one of the most popular and best-selling artists in Norway, admittedly not the biggest market, but nevertheless establishing his pop music credentials, and winning the Norwegian equivalent of Grammy Awards. Science is his first formal American release, but Dybdahl is very much steeped in American pop -- he sings in English, and largely recorded his first album in the fall of 2001 in New York. However, sometimes it takes someone from outside the traditional centers of pop music to undertake a new, unfettered perspective on what ingredients you're supposed to combine on a pop record. Dybdahl has done that on Science, which mixes a bunch of familiar ingredients, Beatles-influenced pop, roots rock, 1960s soul, folk-rock and the laid-back sound of Nick Drake. They're all things we have heard many times before, but Dybdahl manages to put them together in an immediately distinctive way to make for music that is quite appealing as well and attention-getting for its interesting sound.

One of the twists to Dybdahl's music is that despite an often upbeat pop sound, there are no electric guitars to be heard. Dybdahl usually plays a classical style guitar, and there are frequent appearances by string instruments from an added cello here and there to a string section from a classical orchestra, along with things like vibes, pump organ and steel guitar. Though in listening to the music, it may take a while to dawn on you that despite the sound, rock instrumentation is largely absent. Instead, there's a pop feel and an occasional almost frenetic beat, and the lyrics are often interesting as well, especially from a non-native English-speaker.

From the photos of the making of this CD on his website, it looks like a homemade affair largely realized with computer-based recording -- which is also not what one would expect from the sound and style. He is joined by a small, but variable group of Norwegian supporting musicians who perform on the eclectic bunch of instruments. Dybdahl has a soft, laid-back vocal style influenced by the folk scene, but he can be heard doing spoken-word vocals from time to time, though not rap by any means. The recording's tracks virtually all segue one into the other like an old 1970s concept album, which also adds to the interesting quality of the CD, and runs counter to the i-Pod induced trend of deconstructing albums into individual independent tracks.

The CD opens with one of its most memorable pieces, and apparently meant as close to being a single as this continuous recording can offer. It's called Something Real and features a curiously driving beat and unconventional percussion. <<>> Another odd moment is the off-the-wall solo, apparently on a bass saxophone. <<>>

That leads seamlessly into How It Feels, with some of Dybdahl's spoken lyrics, and added string players. <<>>

Still My Body Aches is another very distinctive piece. It's a kind of musical soliloquy, accompanied by a sparse blend of strings, acoustic bass and an antique piano. <<>>

Dybdahl is joined by vocalist Silje Salomonsen on a couple of pieces, including a track called Dice which alternates between ethereal and melodic pop. <<>>

Another curious aspect of this recording is that from time to time, it sounds as if Dybdahl's vocal is electronically lowered in pitch. The track Always is an example, which otherwise has a very natural sound with the added string section. <<>>

Dybdahl goes into his Norwegian soul mode on the track called U. It's hardly Motown, but it does have a kind of eccentric charm. <<>>

Dybdahl includes one instrumental called Outro that draws on the instrumental and sonic eclecticism of the album, with mandolin, the string section, and some spacey moments. <<>>

Dybdahl returns to the slightly nervous rhythm of the first couple of tracks on a piece called Maury the Pawn, which also has its share of intriguingly opaque lyrics. <<>>

Thomas Dybdahl's new release Science is a recording of really interesting pop music, if that's not an oxymoron. He uses a lot of familiar ingredients and puts them together in unexpected ways for an album that is both a bit quirky and which has wide potential appeal. The generally mellow instrumentation sometimes contrasts a bit with the mood of the songs, but the CD has the fairly rare combination of being pleasing in sound but sometimes surprising and almost always intriguing.

Sonically, we'll give the CD close to a grade "A." The pitch-shifted lead vocal in spots is about the only demerit we would give. It's well-recorded, sonically interesting, in keeping with the musical content and arrangements. And the dynamic range, the span between loud and soft, is commendably wide.

Lately, there has been a bit of a revival in Scandinavian pop in this country, and it's not sounding like Abba. There's the alternative influenced music of Sondre Lerche, and the also mellow pop of the Kings of Convenience. Thomas Dybdahl's Science is a great example of looking at pop from a different perspective.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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