Meat the Figurines

Pub date October 9, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


I have a meat map of the world in my head, so when I hear "Denmark," I think of ham. If I think a little harder, I’ll come to kringle, that delicious pastry that’s ubiquitous in Racine, Wis., which is the closest I’ve come to Denmark.

My baby-momma’s of Danish descent, so I also think of the time her cousins came to visit and were amazed by the size of American freeways and our unnatural attachment to firearms. This quaint yet magical mental landscape of cured swine and fatty pastry treats is peopled by friendly — that is to say, unarmed — round-faced folk in wooden shoes, riding horse-drawn buggies down narrow lanes. (The arboreal footwear, which is Dutch, not Danish, and the stray Amish buggy are figments of my somewhat limited imagination, but it’s my quaint vision, so fuck you.) This place has a subtle, subdued soundtrack: When the Deer Wore Blue (Morningside/Control Group, 2007), by Figurines.

The band’s been around since the mid-’90s, when three plucky and puckish teenage Danes by the names of Christian Hjelm, Andreas Toft, and Claus Salling Johansen grew tired of their apprenticeships at their fathers’ respective pig farms and started jamming out on guitars. Together. Three guitars. Which portended a future in a Danish black metal outfit–cum–Motörhead cover band called Thunderfoot–cum–Glenn Branca guitar chamber ensemble, which never came to pass, as Toft moved to bass and Johansen, his arms sinewy with muscle from pounding pig flesh in Papa’s processing plant, decided on drums. What followed was the self-released 2001 EP The Detour and a 2003 debut long-player, Shake a Mountain (Morningside), which was never officially unleashed on the gun-toting psychopaths stateside. Figurines added drummer Kristian Volden, and Johansen and his ham hands — sorry, can’t help it — moved back to guitar. Their burgeoning pop stardom brought them bushels of free ham and kringle and, inexplicably — except in the context of this ridiculous yarn — truckloads of hot chicks in wooden shoes. The boys bought the fastest horses on the lane and had them augmented with pinstripes, flame jobs, and bigger hooves in the back.

The year 2005 brought a daring daylight raid on the John Wayne–ophile Huns in the dark, dystopian land of America with the global release of Skeleton (Morningside/Control Group), which I discovered on my desk between 100 mph drive-by-shooting runs in my stroked-out Dodge Challenger hemi, done out in General Lee orange with a giant rebel flag painted on the roof, natch. As Hjelm sings on Skeleton‘s "Ambush," "Chase ’em down because you’re angry." The band drew comparisons, by other music writers with imaginations even more taxed than mine, to indie giants Built to Spill and Pavement. The Built to Spill thing makes sense, as Hjelm’s voice does have a nasal quality like Doug Martsch’s, but the Pavement allusion I can’t figure, except to say that when music writers get a really good pop record and want to blow smoke up a combo’s collective arse, they trot out left-field comparisons to Stephen Malkmus and company instead of inventing lands of ham and horses. I don’t know — maybe there was something there rhythmically.

For Deer, Figurines have replaced Toft on bass with Mads Kjaergaard, formerly a wood nymph, after the former left the band to open a drive-through guns and alcohol store on an American Indian reservation on Route 666 in Arizona. What can I say? After touring the States, he grew dangerously enamored of our culture. Perhaps more important than this — really, unless they’re Lemmy or Jaco Pastorius, there’s not a lot of change when you switch bassists — they added Jens Ramon on keyboards, which is perhaps the single biggest mood changer on the new disc. Deer has an eerie yet upbeat, cinematic feel to it. It could serve as an alternate to Air’s The Virgin Suicides soundtrack, if the movie had a different ending in which the sisters didn’t kill themselves but instead moved to Denmark to shack up with an indie band — and then killed themselves. "What if we had a chance?" Hjelm sings on "Childhood Verse." "I promise together we’ll die."

Hjelm goes on to channel Brian Wilson in "The Air We Breathe," which, with its backing harmonies, sounds like an outtake from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966). On "Good Old Friends," Neil Young comes to mind: "Not sure what to leave behind / But I know we’ll be all right," Hjelm sings, the phrasing and sentiment feeling like Young’s line in "Tell Me Why": "Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself / When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?" From here the band moves on to "Drunkard’s Dream," which opens with a sort of indie-ized send-up of Stevie Wonder’s "Superstitious," though the metronomic snare hits contrast with the funky guitar lines, making the track more akin to art rock à la Television than Wonder funk. "Bee Dee" centers around an "up the stairs and down again" guitar riff and has a looser, Feelies vibe, while the keyboards in "Cheap Place to Spend the Night" move from rollicking Farfisa to tinkling celesta.

Overall, while conceptually satisfying, the cinematic feel of Deer is not quite the pure pop bliss of Skeleton. Maybe it’s a bit homogeneous, rife with ethereal keys and moody vocals. Maybe our Danish Fab Five have been influenced by the resurgence of folk. The back-cover photo is a cross between a Little House on the Prairie still and a Flying Burrito Brothers portrait, sans rhinestone suits: two Figurines are wearing suspenders, and they each have a questioning, somewhat obsequious look on their face, like they’re about to collectively ask, "Howdy, stranger, can we get you a sarsaparilla?" But the record is ambitious, signifying the band’s willingness to change its sound with each release and not just hammer on what’s worked in the past. From their humble beginnings in ham shanks and clog dancing, Figurines dream big — bigger than I do, certainly.


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