May 11, 2007

Swedish PB&J a delicious indie-pop treat

I never thought it would happen like this. There I was, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hipsters of every breed and demographic, as excited, if not more, than all of them for The Empty Bottle’s headlining act Tuesday night. The commotion and hype generated by the band in question required the venue to add an earlier show, one that was equally difficult to score tickets to.

It seems like people everywhere have been taking part in the growing excitement over rising Swedish indie-pop trio Peter Bjorn and John. That’s right, no commas. And not only do they share an eye for self-promotion—their moniker is printed all over their onstage equipment—but they thrive on the rock ’n’ roll energy created by their live performances, a quality generally lacking on their tepid—yet well-written—February release, Writer’s Block.

With the house lights off, stage lights dimmed, and Swedes nowhere in sight, a gentle sitar track slowly became audible, as did the recognizable melody of “Young Folks.” Despite the accompanying screams and cheers, the intro—“Sitar Folks,” if you will—only provided a taste of what was to come. Finally taking the stage, guitarist Peter Morén charged into a grunge-laced version of the single, “Let’s Call It Off,” decidedly more animated than while he was mingling at the bar earlier.

After opening their set, Peter Bjorn and John appeared rushed and constrained by their time restrictions. However, their energetic performance soon took hold of the capacity crowd.

Drummer John Eriksson propelled much of the performance with quick, punctuated drumming. Because many of the group’s songs are stripped-down, minimalist rock, the instrumental sounds naturally adhere to Eriksson’s beats. He was particularly impressive during “The Chills” and “Start to Melt.” The latter, featuring Eriksson’s singing, had a deep, driving rhythm that personified the “melting” addressed in the song’s lyrics.

One of my favorite Peter Bjorn and John tracks is “Amsterdam,” a sympathetic, yet sanguine, track with an instantly catchy beat and, of course, their signature whistling. Performed live, this was their most varied tune, reduced to simple, finger-picked guitar and vocals, with a late bass entrance providing the added emphasis for the final verse and chorus. Though I wanted more beats and bass, their gentle rendition and smooth harmonies alleviated any apprehension I had towards the piece. The vocals of Morén and bass player, Björn Yttling, generally maintained an unrefined tone, yet they were harmonious and beautiful throughout “Amsterdam.” A similar moment occurred at the ending to “Paris 2004.”

Maintaining the sound level and mood, Peter dedicated the next song to their tour manager’s dog, asking if it’d ever been to Paris before. “Paris 2004” is certainly the catchiest ballad on the album, if one must label it as such; however, it skips and bops rather than swaying. Impressively, Eriksson played all of the electronic melodies in “Paris 2004” and other songs, a much-needed embellishment since Morén didn’t always provide rhythm guitar backup.

It was time for the eagerly anticipated “Young Folks.” Heather D’Angelo, from the opening band Au Revoir Simone, substituted for Viktoria Bergsman, who was the guest vocalist on the recorded track, and an additional bongo player joined the group onstage for the infectiously catchy song. The whistling and the beat provided more than enough background music, and Morén accompanied the duet with a shaker. More than anything, it is a sweet, honest song about falling in love, but Peter Bjorn and John give a refreshingly original take on an old formula.

During one of their final songs, “Up Against the Wall,” Morén managed to forget the lyrics midway through the first verse, but through tactful vamping and some assistance from Yttling, he recovered his memory. The audience was plenty forgiving.

Listening to Peter Bjorn and John, I confronted a seemingly unavoidable paradox: a band that simultaneously exists as both darling indie-pop trio and corporate soundtrack. Only music connoisseurs seem to know the band by name; however, throngs of people regularly hear “Young Folks” pumping through coffee shops and in Cingular ads. Not to mention that “Objects of My Affection” is also featured in a Pontiac spot, though without the lyrics. Additionally, “Young Folks” was featured on several catwalks during last fall’s New York Fashion Week alongside mainstream pop like “SexyBack.”

I am unsure how this reflects on the group or their fan base, but it is an eye-opening account of their multifaceted success. Regardless, PB & J are slowly taking America by storm, converting nontraditional indie listeners one whistle at a time.