Hans Appelqvist: Sjunga slutet nu

Musette: Drape Me in Velvet

Tenniscoats: Papa's Ear

Despite being a dramatically varied group, these three recent releases show the long-standing Häpna imprint to be in particularly fine form. On the one hand we've got the Japanese duo Tenniscoats, on the other the time-weathered musings of Musette, and finally the film-related recording by Hans Appelqvist. Quality releases all—though it must be said the first two are easier to warm up to, given that their concision and cohesiveness allow the listener to engage with them more easily.

We had the good fortune to review Joel Danell's previous Musette album Datum (2009, Tona Serenad) and are just as delighted to be presented with Drape Me in Velvet, as satisfying a collection as the earlier one. Much is made of the fact that over the course of the album's three-year production, Danell recorded the album on a decades-old collection of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes, and then proceeded to abuse the tapes in other ways so as to make the album's songs play like long-lost relics from the 1950s. Though stylistically the artists aren't necessarily alike, in this regard at least it's easy to draw a connection between Musette and The Caretaker. Describing Drape Me in Velvet (as per the accompanying press text) as “music for amusement parks with neglected maintenance” is especially apt.

The eroded quality of the recording can be fully heard during “Wuzak,” a sentimental lounge instrumental whose sounds of electric guitar, ballroom trumpet, organ, and harps seem on the verge of vanishing altogether, given that the tape on which they're heard is so fragile. Though “Monsoon Moon” is (too) brief, the melodic acrobatics performed by its organ are no less thrilling for being so, and during “Night, Night, Night,” a dainty harpsichord sings a plaintive song while flutes murmur and electric guitars twang. In its opening half, “Horse Thoughts” could almost pass for a newly discovered Satie piece, even if crinkly strings and dissonant electric guitar textures later emerge alongside the piano, and the up-close recording of the keyboard in “Fine” draws a connecting line between Danell and Nils Frahm. All treatments aside, what most recommends the album is the strength of its compositions. In addition to being somewhat of a sonic historian and someone with a musicologist's sensitivity for the defining characteristics of earlier genres, Danell has a gift for melody and arrangement that sets his music apart. For thirty-four minutes, organs, flutes, harps, vibraphones, and percussion instruments conjure images of ballrooms, lounges, and Parisian soirees from long ago. Light as a feather, Danell's easy listening tunes whistle softly, spreading charm wherever they go.

Being familiar with only a few Tenniscoats recordings before this one, I'm hardly the utmost authority on the Japanese duo and its music. Having said that, I'd be surprised if there's a better and more endearing release in its discography than the splendid Papa's Ear, which succeeds on every level. The songwriting is first-rate, the arrangements meticulously conceived and judiciously considered, and the performances affecting. To some degree the high quality of the release can be attributed to the fact that Saya and Ueno went to Stockholm, Sweden to record the album's songs in the company of Tape and Häpna associates Johan Berthling (also the album producer), Tomas Hallonsten, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Lars Skoglund, Andreas Söderström, and Andreas Werliin. The instrument sounds contributed by the guests—double bass, accordion, horns, woodwinds, and drums—immeasurably enhance Tenniscoats' already arresting sound world of vocals, melodica, guitars, and keyboards. But even more importantly it appears that the collaborative process infused the duo's sound with a degree of clarity and polish that hasn't always been present. Though we're informed that, in customary Tenniscoats fashion, Saya wrote some of the lyrics at the last minute, the resultant collection sounds anything but slapdash (in contrast to 2007's Tan-Tan Therapy, the recording process of which, apparently, was haphazard by comparison).

Papa's Ear encompasses many moods, from light-hearted to melancholy, and as the album plays on, one is repeatedly beguiled by its melodic charms. It seems impossible not be captivated by “Kuki no soko” (The Bottom of the Air) and its delicate arrangement of tinkling glockenspiels, acoustic guitars, and Saya's soft voice. A melancholy ballad such as “Sappolondon” is not only distinguished by her singing but by the song's arrangement of accordion and saxophone. “Sabaku” (Desert) is likewise as stirring for its lovely blend of horns and clarinet as it is Saya's vocal and the mellow tone of the song itself. The album's must hummable song would have to be “Papaya,” a jaunty number whose “bu-bu-bu-eeya” vocals and gleeful melodica figure echo in one's memory long after the album's been filed away.

At seventy-one minutes and twenty-five tracks, Hans Appelqvist's Sjunga slutet nu (Sing the End Now) is a comparatively more sprawling work than those by Tenniscoats and Musette. It is also, on the other hand, a conceptually more complex work, seeing as how Appelqvist's conceived of it as both an album and a film, and it's an inarguably beautiful sounding recording, too, distinguished as it with a rich orchestral palette of flutes, percussion, acoustic guitars, baritone sax, vocals, strings, and so on—what a pleasure it is to hear, for instance, the harp in “en arm for ut” resound with such crystalline clarity. In general, the arrangements are appealingly restrained, with Appelqvist often featuring no more than a handful of instruments in a given setting (the pleasingly stark “Ur svart mot vitt” features nothing more than African percussion and a honking baritone sax, for example).

The narrative itself is both sober (in its concern with death) and fantastical, given that it features: Theodora, an elderly woman who resides by a lake somewhere in Sweden; a six-year-old boy Vissen; and a levitating sphere named Sot (presumably it's Theodora's voice that's heard during “Oron släpper ska du se,” while a conversation between the others appears during “Vissen & Sot”). There's a surreal and dream-like quality about the narrative but also the recording, too, especially when its individual pieces range so widely in style and mood and when dialogue and field recordings occasional emerge. Unadorned vocal songs (“How Come”) rub elbows with intricately woven instrumentals (“Vatten”), and though many of the songs are vignettes and hold together better as parts of the larger fabric, a few pieces hold up well as stand-alones. There's a melodious, sing-song quality to “Ägg” that makes it linger in memory (its serpentine melody re-surfaces during the later “Sperma”), as do the solo piano piece “Ur elden,” the stirring vocal song “När solen dör,” and lovely choir setting “Människans mörkermening.”

March 2012