Fever Ray: A Member Of The Knife Comes To A Fork In The Road

The Knife is on its own trip. The Swedish brother-sister electronic act, made up of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, has managed to maintain some semblance of mystery despite all manner of Internet hype, blog cred, and homeland stardom. The two have no urgency to capitalize on the fevered stateside reception to 2006 album Silent Shout, and no pressure to follow up with anything conventional (they’re currently scoring an art-house opera inspired by Charles Darwin). The Knife’s 2004 album, Deep Cuts, was an exercise in obvious techno riffing and overly competent dance hooks, but it didn’t register with an indie stateside scene that usually devours that kind of detached, Eurotrash cool.

Their breakthrough came with the considerably darker, more experimental electro-pop of Silent Shout. Besides containing at least a couple of absolutely perfect songs, the album proved Olof to be a deft programmer of wonky atmospherics, as he spun rubbery notes and whale noises into otherwise sharp electro riffs. But Karin’s vocals were the strategic centerpiece, and the siblings bent her voice across every point on the arc. Her vocals are naturally pretty and sweet, but after dense multitracking and filtering through vocoders and pitch and octave shifters, the sound was rarely recognizable as female, and ranged from nightmarish and ghoulish to cartoonish and squeaky.

Silent Shout was a critical smash, but it left the siblings burned out with the recording process, The Knife, and each other. Olof moved to Germany, where he is currently a DJ, spinning minimalist house beats. Karin gave birth to her second child and then picked up a pen. In November of 2007, she spent eight months alone in a recording studio in Stockholm. “At first, it was hard to distinguish between my ideas and Olof’s ideas, because we had been working so closely for so many years,” she says. “But once I got into it, it became a good deal of fun.” The result is Fever Ray, Karin’s new project with a self-titled solo debut that came out this March.

Fever Ray is the kind of shift in sound that one might expect from an artist on the back end of a significant life event and at a crossroads in her career. It’s down-tempo, moody, and reflective. Karin laid the vocals, took care of the programming, and even infused some uncharacteristic organic flourishes. She plays guitar on the album, and a closer listen reveals a wealth of instrumentation to fill in the fringe spaces (congas, piano, live drumming).

Despite the myriad elements at work, these songs are subtle growers. Even the up-tempo tracks feel restrained. On the first single, “If I Had a Heart,” Karin’s vocals are multi-tracked and pitch-shifted to doom over a droning, subsonic bass. Whether it’s the pitter-patter electronics of “When I Grow Up” or the sparkle-and-shoot keys on “Dry and Dusty,” these songs build without ever threatening to overheat. The second half of the album is an even greater departure from The Knife, with hard electro clacks and sparse, syncopated beats that feel influenced by the British dubstep scene.

Ambiguity, abstraction, bizarre connections, and strange associations flow volcanically from Karin’s songwriting. There certainly are more predictable ways for a mother to express the observation of her children than singing, “Dangling feet from window frame / will they ever, ever reach the floor?” But that’s the way Karin writes, with just enough details for the listener to project his or her own meat onto Karin’s skeletal outlines.

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