Shout Out Louds
Our Ill Wills
he Shout Out Louds’ debut American release, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, served more as a singles collection than a proper album. Released in their native Sweden in 2003, it arrived on our shores two years later, having been re-jigged and re-tooled to include songs from all their Scandinavian releases. Similarily, Our Ill Wills also bore a premature birth overseas, appearing in Scandinavian stores in May. This time however, the track listing remains the same as its European counterpart, making it feel like the band’s first proper US album. It’s an actuality that could also be attributed to the fact that Our Ill Wills sounds like one—carefully paced and deliberate—rather than merely a collection of exemplary singles.
Produced by Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John fame, Our Ill Wills lacks the innocent intensity and naïve appeal that made Howl Howl Gaff Gaff a minor pop masterpiece. Instead of capitalizing on the buzz saw guitars and woozy synths that signified their arrival, the five-piece have gentrified the raw instrumentation that defined their debut. They’ve spruced it up, added elaborate awnings and, in doing so, have given the songs a dollop of pop gloss that shimmers but doesn’t always shine. While more diverse than their prior outing, Our Ill Wills still features the maudlin lovelorn lyrics and catchy hooks found on their debut, but its problems lay in the songwriting and production, which, like a fresh batch of musical oysters, is slick and far too easy to swallow.
The guitars, once the band’s driving force, are stripped back and acoustic this time around. The songs are mono-paced yet epic, and build upon the Arcade Fire cavalcade of depth and dynamics, favoring subtle instrumental changes as emotional signifiers. An armory of percussion is carefully layered, guitars are purposefully strummed, and synths replicate soaring strings. But despite this dearth of instrumentation they consistently combine to reach pleasant plateaus rather than emotional peaks.
The album itself peaks early, opening, as it does, with the single “Tonight I Have to Leave It.” Propelled by a soaring synth line and a downbeat but melodic lyrical bent, comparisons to the Cure are apparent from the start, so much so, that it’s hard to tell whether we should file it under homage, imitation, or pastiche. “Impossible” also parlays the Cure’s ‘80s aesthetic into the percussion for what turns out to be six minutes of poppy angst, while “Normandie” is the most overt obeisance—the clipped lead guitar sounding uncannily like “Close to Me.”
It’s not all goth pop parallels though. There’s “Meat is Murder,” which isn’t a Smiths cover, but an aching and creaky acoustic lament. “South America” forsakes a traditionally sung chorus for what sounds like an orchestra of drunken violinists riding an uncertain wave. And keyboardist Bebban Stenborg takes the vocal reins on the slight and subtle “Blue Headlights,” sounding like Nico if she’d skipped New York City and headed straight for Nashville.
But even when the band hark bark to the guitar sound of Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, as they do on the closing “Hard Rain,” the Cure’s influence still seeps through in singer Adam Olenius’ vocals, which siphon Robert Smith’s downbeat drawl. And while his vocal style does grate slightly, it doesn’t distract from the lyrics, which mine the David Gedge book of relationship barbs (“Your neck smells just like hers did,” from “Normandie” for example). But, whereas Howl Howl Gaff Gaff found Olenius pleading for people to come back (“Please, Please, Please” being the obvious example) Our Ill Wills finds him wistful, slightly hurt, but in no way apologetic.
Love is still the Holy Grail (“I just want to be bothered with real love,” he throws out half-heartedly on the opening track), but now he’s slightly bitter, exchanging return and reconciliation for retribution. “Don’t come back to Stockholm,” he states on the Euro pop gloss of “You Are Dreaming,” adding: “You still believe I'm thinking of you, you are dreaming, yes you are dreaming.” The fact that these words are intertwined with a carefully layered, sickly sweet pop tune makes for a multi-hued juxtaposition. But the song itself is far too slick, so much so, that it completely negates the dark lyrics and evokes, instead, images of young love and carnival rides.
Our Ill Wills is the sound then, of a band sanding off the rough edges, filling in their fjord sized fuzz with synths, and lacquering the finished product with Robert Smith’s hairspray. On the album’s opening couplet, Olenius states: “Don't come up to me and say you like it / It's better if you say you hate it, that's the truth exactly.”
I don’t like it. I don’t hate it. And that’s the truth exactly.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2007-09-26