The name of this band is kind of deceptive. I'm From Barcelona is not from Barcelona (or anywhere else in Spain). It's not even a "I."
Utimately, who cares? This Swedish band from Jönköping -- who have at least thirty members -- haven't lost their twinkly charm in their second full-length album, the obliquely-named "Who Killed Harry Houdini?" But they've changed their sound dramatically as well -- they've merged their colourful, trippy sensibilities with a more stretched-out, mournful sound, creating a wistfully bittersweet epic brand of pop music.
It opens with a sweep of mournful synth, piano and bells. The vast band chorale intones, "Aaaaaaannnnndy.... Aaaaaaaaannndy..." several times, before Emanuel Lundgren starts asking softly, "Andy, you really wanna do this?/You're endin' up in showbiz/You really wanna go?" As the chorale swells again, he adds, "Andy, you really wanna go there?/They're messin' up your hair... We could use someone like you in our band, Aaaaaaaanndeeeeee/No addition, and you don't have to pretend..."
That song is enough to convince you that I'm From Barcelona has taken on a newly bittersweet sound. Apparently the band is aware of that, because the next two songs are practically a musical pat on the back -- a colourful, sunny pop tune that talks about a clarinet-playing man "in his underpants," and a tinkly melody that feels like a warm late-spring breeze. It feels like "Don't worry, we're still fun -- we're just trying new stuff."
That nostalgia trip ends with the wavering "Music Killed Me," a swirl of epic mellotron and wistful reminiscences, followed by a string of equally unusual pop. Warm'n'fuzzy ambient ballads, delightfully elusive pop melodies, delightfully dark indiepop that doesn't succeed in being hard-edged ("You're like a demon/no one else would believe me/but I know the things you do!"), wind-chime filled tinkly ballads, and two last pop tunes that deftly mingle the sprightly pop with a more epic sound.
I'm From Barcelona (much like the "Fawlty Towers" character that cheerfully announced "I am from Barcelona!") is difficult not to love despite their vast size and sometimes twee sound. And frankly put, infusing all that colour and sparkle with a bit of exuberant darkness and mournfulness only enhances their original sound -- sort of like how bright colours look even brighter next to black. And surprisingly, they are capable of intertwining and alternating those sounds.
Having thirty-plus people all playing instruments means that I'm From Barcelona has a lot of musical depth. The more sprightly tunes have nimble tangles of violin, drums and plucked guitar, with colourful threads of clarinet, flutes and occasionally a xylophone. And the less sunny songs are full of plaintive piano, strings and epic expanses of dark trembling synth, with a lesser array of additional instruments -- you can hear some bells, thick mats of guitar, and blurry static.
Problem? Rarely do the two styles meet. The two sounds start intertwining in the last few songs, but the most successful fusion has to be the semi-titular track, "Houdini." It's a devilishly mischievous, wildly danceable song that revels in its drawling vocals and catchy melody.
Lundgren adds a lot to that brilliant instrumentation and lyrics -- his boyish voice runs smoothly over the songs, even when he's wailing "You're like a demon!" over and over, although the chorale adds a lot of atmosphere. And his songs are beautifully whimsical little concoctions -- one song is from a ghost's point of view ("I hope you won't leave me/I only wanna be your friend/I know you can't see me/I'm happy if you could pretend..."), while others beg a guy to join your band, sing wistfully of a boy who "doesn't believe in joy," and a girl named Ophelia who can't afford to fix one of her cars.
"Who Killed Harry Houdini" weaves some sadder moments into I'm From Barcelona's upbeat music, and while it gives the album a mildly split personality, it makes both styles all the more vivid.