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Ellen Arkbro & Johan Graden
I get along without you very well Daniel Hignell , September 21st, 2022 09:49

Two Swedish composer-performers produce a unique take on pop song writing, finds Daniel Hignell

Those familiar with Ellen Arkbro’s previous work might be forgiven for registering some surprise at her latest effort – an album that eschews the purist harmonic studies of for brass and organ and chords in favour of, well, actual songs. On the surface, the shift is somewhat of a curveball. Yet hidden within the album’s eight succinct tracks, traces of her prior character remain, a distinctive approach to working with her core sonic materials that grows more apparent with every listen.

Arkbro, and collaborator Johan Graden – a Swedish multi-instrumentalist last seen on Vilhelm Bromander’s excellent aurora early this year – walk a fine line between the glacial pop of Mazzy Star and a far more mediative, far more interesting, exploration of compositional restraint. Meandering, improvisatory, drawn out to the extreme, I get along without you very well is an album abundantly confident doing nothing, wistfully throwing up a handful of ideas and letting them float in the breeze, employing the faintest of structures to lure them back to earth. 

Percussion, clarinet, organ, and brass combine to form rich, dirge-like walls of sound – an unusual combination made all the more obtuse for its habit of letting several instruments share near identical parts, with only their cautious harmonic development left to pry one voice from another. Anti-melodies drift effortlessly from place to place, the vocals – sometimes singing, sometimes merely humming in the distance – hovering loosely, lethargically above a dense and fragile bed. 

Opener ‘Close’ channels a doomy, droning spirit, with Arkbro’s voice jostling against the lightest wisps of the clarinet, a delicate, temperate tuba pining from the hallway of another room entirely. Tracks like ‘Never Near’ or ‘Temple’ succeed precisely because they go nowhere, concerned as they are more with the constant and subtle reframing of long-held tones than with trying to mimic the song-structure proper. Not simply a collection of discreet tunes, however, the whole affair seems designed to build towards its narrative pedestal: the penultimate ‘Love you, bye’, a track that begins with a sparse organ refrain before slowly developing into a mesmerising wash of complex brass chords and pensive, Badalamenti rhythms. 

It is perhaps of no surprise that Arkbro and Graden are at their best when courting the more experimental fringes of their sound world. The occasional focus on piano and vocals in tracks like ‘Out of luck’ seems oddly misplaced, treading some fairly well-worn singer-songwriter ground in a manner at odds with an album that doesn’t so much challenge the traditional song construct, as smash it with a very melancholic hammer. This is but a small complaint. I get along without you very well is a fascinating album, a work that utilises its composers’ achievements at producing classical music – not least their clear mastery of harmony – to construct a unique and surprising take on the pop adjacent format.