August Engkilde: Electronic Panorama Orchestra

Don't be thrown by the Popscape label name, as Electronic Panorama Orchestra might just as easily have appeared on ~scape. Presumably it was the vocals that swayed label personnel into thinking that some new designation was warranted but these aren't pop songs designed for AM radio play—they're far too unusual for that. Of course, ~scape devotees may recognize the name Engkilde, as the Norwegian's supple acoustic bass graced “Green Is Not Green-Yellow” and “Back Home” on last year's Pole. He's also a longtime member of Uwe Schmidt's Senor Coconut band, appeared on Flanger's Inner Space/Outer Space, and recorded Police Beat Box under his own name for Cheap Records. But while Engkilde is the de facto EPO leader and composed the album's ten tracks, Electronic Panorama Orchestra is by no means a solo effort. He's surrounded by a large phalanx of acoustic musicians and singers, most notably singer Frida Asmussen and trumpeter Henrik Jorgensen. Amussen's vocals appear on four of the disc's ten tracks and simulate some imaginary conflation of Björk, Rickie Lee Jones, and Beth Gibbons, while Jorgenson's playing adds a rich dimension. Other guests, less prominently featured but memorable nonetheless, include Fredrik Lundin (whose bass flute and Coltranesque soprano sax are showcased to good effect on “Continental Traveling”) and Laurent Georges who adds some distinctive bass clarinet to “I Do.”

How to characterize the EPO sound? The collective's unusual acoustic-electronic hybrid encompasses jazz, dub, soul, Latin, pop, even country—panoramic indeed. Arguably the best thing here, the opening song “Little Mary & Old George” fashions a unique funk-soul-jazz combination. Driven by Engkilde's acoustic bass lines, the song progresses in relaxed manner with Asmussen's Björk-like vocal complemented by a jazzy trumpet solo from Jorgenson. The song's detailed arrangement is fleshed out by electric piano, aquatic guitar lines, and exotic percussion. It's an auspicious intro which, frankly, the remainder of the album never quite matches. Moving into dubbier territory with its melodica and deep bass lines is the equally relaxed “Talk To Odua” while “I Do” exudes a trip-hop feel with Asmussen's vocal, now reminiscent of Beth Gibbons, sung through a distorting filter. In spite of its derivativeness, her singing is definitely an album strength, as it playfully and effortlessly swoops like a horn. Other highlights include Jorgensen's Milesian playing in “Papergirl” and the Jaco-like sound Engkilde conjures in “The Tres Players Story.”

Weaknesses do surface to offset the album's strengths. Asmussen's lyrics on “Papergirl” verge on childish, and “The Bird & The Guitar” is marred by electronic bird noises that overshadow the acoustic guitar picking. Aside from its silly lyrics, the country-jazz pairing of a muted jazz trumpet with crying pedal steel lines in “The Marriage Of Hat & Boots” sounds incongruous. Still, in spite of these missteps, Electronic Panorama Orchestra impresses as a largely successful marriage of the traditional and experimental, the acoustic and electronic, and the structured and improvised. It's certainly unlike anything else released by ~scape, or perhaps anywhere else for that matter. With, therefore, so much to admire, why is my assessment so restrained in its praise? Simply put, while the pieces are meticulously conceived and executed with panache, and while the arrangements impress as original and imaginative, compositionally there's little aside from “Little Mary & Old George” that burrows beneath my skin and stays there, drawing me back and demanding to be heard again. An album to appreciate, then, as opposed to wax ecstatic over.

August 2004