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A Bit of the Old, Now and New

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The life in the mind of a catchy pop song: Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”

There is a good chance that you’ve heard the stand-out track “Young Folks” from the indie Swedish band Peter Bjorn and John’s most recent album Writer’s Block, whether in soundtrack form, on a late-night talk show, or on the radio.

When I first heard the song on the radio, I was driving. I immediately became hypnotically entrenched in what I was hearing and not hearing (what Peter Moran refers to as the “sparseness of the sound of the song”) . . . so much so that I nearly veered off of the road.

Which, in a way, is what the song does: it takes you to a time and place when a glance from a cute girl or boy was more than just a thrill, it was sign of change; a shift in the possibilities that the world held for you. Without relying musically on the over-production and over-dubs that can often under-play—or lose—the essential allure of a great song, “Young Folks” rather relies on a more back-to-basics approach.

And as is the case of many great songs, “Young Folks” “has its own life now” – thanks to those who heard in it that certain piece of media – what Moran identifies as “addictive and catchy, a weird sounding hits song”. Seldom do I find myself as addicted to a “hit” song as I have become with “Young Folks” –because so much of what is marketed (as opposed to made) comes off as artificial, gimmicky, contrived, too well-made, too well-packaged or simply overdone.

There is more the wonderful, weird charm of “Young Folks” than its back-to basics approach. Essentially the emphasis is not on production, but on capturing the purity of the melody, and the inherent message in the song; a melody and message that need not be complicated or over-the-top, but that attaches itself to you in a pleasing way, a melody in the form of a recurrent whistle.

Those of you who have heard the song, you know how infectious the whistle is. For those that have not yet heard it—you will know.

“Young Folks” is a duet. The female vocals are sung with a playful coyness that harkens back to certain bubble-gum pop songs of the 1960s – may make it seem less contemporary, but it doesn’t – due in part to the very contemporary arrangement of the music (snazzy bass, rollicking drums and percussion) and charismatic singing.

I find a similar kind of back-to-basics approach in Beck’s “Think I’m Love” –speaking of artists who do remarkable work bridging the old with the new.

The premise of “Young Folks” is simple: a boy and girl sing to one another about their capacity to “talk” to one another and recognize this as something special, which, indeed, it is in this world of global, instant, high-tech, no boundary communication—where such a message is often lost.

And so, is “Young Folks” a great song on an otherwise just so-so (or worse – a mediocre) album? No. As “Young Folks” is weirdly catchy in its own way—so too are all the other songs on Writer’s Block – each quite distinct, which is a rare quality in any album is, and says much about the talents and skills of the band.

While the opening track, “Objectives of My Affection,” is high octane with ringing guitars and pounding drums, “Amsterdam” is quirkily subtle and modern. And the songs only become more diverse in approach and appeal; “The Chills” hauntingly beautiful, “Paris 2004” vocal driven with a catchy chorus – as is ”Let’s Call It off” – in a more traditional way, as “Poor Cow” might be, but no two songs are alike, each differentiates itself musically, just as the lyrics and vocals project a variety of moods, all of them endowed with remarkable crafty sensitivity. I used the word “modern” to describe the appeal of one track, but all of the tunes on Writer’s Block are provocative and contemporary—while containing bits of the past with a strong sense of the now—making it all seem new.

Peter Bjorn and John will play at Lollapalooza in Chicago on August 5, 2007 at Grant Park.
For more on the band, visit their page on allmusic.com

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