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El Perro del Mar
KoKoro Jeremy Allen , September 19th, 2016 16:53

It’s not difficult to understand why the ancient Greeks believed inspiration came from the muses. From the Latin inspirare ("to breathe into"), inspiration is as elusive and unpredictable as a terrorist, and when it strikes it can be just as devastating. Like love, you never know when you've got the full compliment, at least until it turns up and slaps you full force in the face. As Saul Bellow once said, “you never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write”.

Gothenburg chanteuse Sarah Assbring, aka El Perro del Mar (Spanish for ‘the dog of the sea’) has been chipping away at the coalface of pop for more than a decade now, and while her endeavours have not been without merit, nothing could have quite prepared us for the musical magnitude of KoKoro. Predecessor Pale Fire, named after the Nabokov novel, traded in the safe 60s inspired pop she’d been peddling for a good while for a more experimental palette, but it was still daubing in watercolours. On the new album, her fifth, she has graduated to popmaster status, Queen of all she surveys.

It takes a long time to be an overnight success, as the saying goes, and El Perro del Mar’s transformation has come from a willingness to try new things. Where PJ Harvey writes a new album with a new musical instrument she was previously unfamiliar with, here we have a whole ensemble of them. Sounds on the record include the Japanese Shakuhachi flute, the Guzheng - a type of Chinese zither - the Dulcimer, which is also a part of the zither family, and Arabic strings. The distinctive, driving rhythms - on tracks such as the hypnotic ‘Breadandbutter’ - are beholden to Ethiopian music, or so the press release reliably informs us.

“In a time that seems to go backwards humanistically and morally,” says Assbring, “seeking to put up walls rather than tearing them down, I realised I wanted to make a borderless album that belongs nowhere but has a universal voice and a universal heart.” With the sounds of Thailand, Sumatra, India, Ethiopia and China drawn upon, it’s somewhat inevitable that questions will be asked about a privileged and bohemian white woman ransacking so many cultures willy-nilly, and yet in this interconnected world in which we now live, surely anything one can hear is up for grabs? The only way to respond to the sourpusses is to ensure the music is very, very good, something that KoKoro can more than justifiably claim.

‘Endless Ways’ is a tremendously assured and delectable opener with a tune that melts into your very senses; the arrangement is lush and ostentatious, with an emotional drama that can easily carry you away. The title track has the pop sensibilities of The Wall-era Michael Jackson with a rhythm track that’s more primal, but no less irresistible. ‘Dim Sum’ has an almost Carl Douglas-like Chinese disco fetish going on, while the denouement in the shape of ‘Nougat Mind’ marries wild rhythms to long, mournful strings in the lower register.

The aforementioned ‘Breadandbutter’ is perhaps the highlight among an album full of them, cantering along seductively with the catchiest mantra yet - “We all come from the bellybutton bellybutton... We all start from the very bottom very bottom”. It’s almost childishly and determinedly naive, as are some of the other mantras that get repeated again and again on other tracks, and it becomes obvious that lots of these songs were written with her young daughter in mind. Like on ‘Endless Ways’, where she repeats the words “endless ways to better myself”, they’re songs of positivity and of striving, intended to see the good in the world when it can all too often feel like we’re only surrounded by darkness. And what is great pop music if it isn’t distilling the simplest ideas into something perfectly packaged that packs a punch anyway? Then all you need is true inspiration, which is as elusive as unicorns, the Higgs boson and the Holy Grail all rolled into one. Thankfully KoKoro - which apparently means “the heart of things” in Japanese - is pure pop alchemy.