Niki & the Dove, ‘Instinct’ (Sub Pop/Mercury)
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Label: Sub Pop/Mercury
It’s amazing what a name change, some British buzz, and a few sequins can do. Before placing fifth in the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll of new acts and signing to Sub Pop, Stockholm’s Niki & the Dove toiled under the radar through much of the last decade. In 2003, singer Malin Dahlström and conservatory-schooled keyboardist Gustaf Karlöf contributed to jazz-house act Stockholm Cyclo, which morphed into Karlöf’s similarly lounge-y Stalker Studio. While in all-female folktronica trio Midaircondo, Dahlström sang Stalker’s one semi-notable song, “We Should Fall”; after that, Dahlström and Karlöf appeared in Gothenburg’s short-lived indie band the Dora Steins, where they picked up Magnus Böqvist, provider of the rhythms that now animate their current collaboration.
Got all that? Yet these credits and connections would mean little had Dahlström not written the winner that would properly launch Niki & the Dove, “DJ, Ease My Mind.” In a 2009 YouTube clip, the Dora Steins perform a folky version of the tune, and even without drums, it already sounds like a standard: Starting with a whisper, Dahlström builds to a bluesy roar, absent from her previous ventures, as she rocks to an imaginary drum implied by the lyric’s wish to disappear under blinding disco lights after hitting love’s dead end. She and Karlöf must’ve realized they had a potential hit that demanded more drama and glitter than they could muster in their previous incarnation: Now, in the official “DJ” video, Dahlström appears as a human disco ball. Wrapped in mirrors and Spandex, she belts out her prayer for dance-floor salvation as galactic light twinkles like stars around her and a blindfolded Karlöf. There is so much shadow and strobe-light action that one can barely see what these people look like, but the effect is — like the song itself — cosmic, momentous.
From Cher and Kraftwerk to Kylie Minogue and Daft Punk, dance music has a long history of producing miraculous third acts. Unlike rock, where bands either burn out or fade away under the watchful eye of a scrutinizing press, dance music’s programmers and singers can stick around for decades or reappear with the right remix, and nobody cares how old they are or insignificant they’ve been, as long as their new beats (and makeup) seize our imaginations.
So, taking tips from Empire of the Sun and Oracular Spectacular-era MGMT, Dahlström and Karlöf now paint their pale faces with tribal stripes to suit Böqvist’s circumvention of conventional rock and disco rhythms in favor of complex African syncopations. Like Peter Gabriel’s early-’80s Afro-tech albums, Niki & the Dove’s debut avoids traditional hi-hat clicking. A four-to-the-floor wallop runs through most of “The Drummer,” “Under the Bridges,” and “DJ, Ease My Mind,” but the rest of Instinct eschews every standard EDM percussion pattern, and that’s an achievement. The group rightly bristles at electro or synth-pop categorizations: Their newfound way with a hook is undeniable, but despite a near-total reliance on keyboards and percussion, the finely fluctuating sound is never robotic. As their previous discographies suggest, Dahlström and Karlöf’s output is driven by experience and personal expression, not radio readymades.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of precedents in the mix. At the peak of her angst, Dahlström’s pinched larynx recalls Tegan & Sara’s nervous yelps; the Gabriel-like synths and tom-toms surrounding her evoke Kate Bush, whom Dahlström also resembles at her most theatrical. Female singers always get hit harder with musical comparisons, but two others here seem deliberate: “Somebody” screams Prince, but it’s the way the melody reaches up for the chorus and its accompanying chords, rather than any obvious vocal similarities, that makes Dahlström’s rain run purple. She also conjures Stevie Nicks throughout, but particularly on “In Your Eyes” and CD bonus track “The Beach,” both reverently reminiscent of their models, right down to the “Stand Back”-like synths, Tusk-y beats, and the spot-on way Dahlström dips to a witchy growl. They’re essentially the best Stevie Nicks-focused Fleetwood Mac cuts since 1987’s similarly nocturnal Tango in the Night.
But just as Nicks’ subsequent output has been compromised by nose candy, Dahlström’s lyrics are handicapped by what’s clearly not the singer’s native tongue. As suggested by its Henri Rousseau-eque jungle artwork (another Tango reference), Instinct’s poesy is heavy with nature, darkness, mystery, and desire. Sometimes it’s lucid, as during much of “DJ, Ease My Mind.” But for every memorable line like, “Last night we got married in a taxi,” there are many vague and clunky ones: “Color my footsteps blue and milk” and “I used to friend with trees” are but two of the goofiest.
Aside from hushed clunker “Love to the Test,” though, the arrangements almost always carry the eloquence and ease that Dahlström’s words can lack. Working with Elof Loelv, a Swedish pop producer unknown in the U.S., Dahlström and Karlöf have fussed over not just the album’s near-constant catchiness, but also its sonic complexities. They’re refreshingly warm where Swedish peers the Knife are intentionally cold; they’re consistent where Florence + the Machine are spotty; they’re accessible where Bat for Lashes is elusive. Recorded while the pair’s profile was rising, Instinct sounds as though these vets knew that this was their moment to hustle like rookies while polishing like pros. The album clicks because beyond the date-stamping visuals and the music’s timeless project to unite art and pop, the longtime partnership behind Niki & the Dove has finally found a proper voice, and a proper name.