Gus Gus: Arabian Horse

We weren't overly impressed with GusGus's sixth album 24/7 (review here), but its seventh, Arabian Horse, is a different story altogether. Everything seems to converge splendidly on the new collection, making it one of the strongest collections of electronic vocal dance pop heard in recent days—perhaps President Bongo (Stephan Stephensen), Biggi Veira (Birgir Þórarinsson), and Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson were invigorated by the return of vocalist Urður “Earth” Hákonardóttir and the addition of Högni Elisson (Hjaltalin) to the Icelandic trio's fold. One might think of the songs as instrumental structures rooted in a neon-lit fusion of trance and deep house paired with hook-laden vocal melodies of uplifting character. The material is synth-heavy with the burble and swell of analog gear a constant presence throughout the album.

The three songs on which Hákonardóttir appears are the album's best. Pairing her soaring voice to August's on “Be With Me” proves to be a masterstroke, as her singing takes the song to a higher level, while the album hits its greatest stride during the fourth song, “Over,” which at certain moments could pass for a modern-day Human League. It's here where all of GusGus's strengths coalesce: an irresistibly funky house groove, ravishing vocal melodies, inflamed synth atmospheres, and stunning vocal interplay from Hákonardóttir and August. She takes the lead on the title track and in so doing elevates what would be a hard-grooving synth-funk banger into a stirring and sexy soul anthem (even at one point sounding uncannily like Stevie Nicks). Hákonardóttir's incandescent singing makes the songs on which she appears essential listening, while Elisson likewise serves as a strong vocal complement to August on the melancholy “Within You,” which also brings Samúel Jón Samúelsson's string contributions to the forefront. August's pleading vocal on “Magnified Love” gives the track a sexy vibe reminiscent of “Tainted Love” (the similarity between GusGus and Soft Cell most pronounced during the song's chorus), and one could just as easily imagine a chanteuse like Tracey Thorn emoting over the melancholy dance-pop of “When Your Lover's Gone” instead of Egilsson.

Being so good, the vocal songs can't help but overshadow the instrumentals though they work pretty hard to equal them (the closer “Benched,” for example, adds saw and slide guitar playing by Eric Alm and Davíð Þór Jónsson respectively for extra interest). “Selfoss” inaugurates the album with an instrumental overture of brooding trance that enters quietly but eventually swells to a punishing rave pitch before inexplicably morphing into a celebratory gypsy dance led by Jónsson's accordion playing. Not every song on Arabian Horse hits the bullseye but those that do represent some of the strongest electronic vocal pop you'll probably hear this year.

August 2011