Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week
By Susannah Young
Were you to make some kind of flow chart ranking musicians’ aptitude for wringing emotion and empathy out of synthetic instruments, I’d say most of the top spots would be occupied by Swedish artists. In the capable hands of (and/or the producers behind) the Knife, Robyn, Kleerup and even Ace of Base, songs that could easily sound icy and inhuman get infused with a human touch. They’ve got a knack for finding the heart in the machine.
It’s safe to go ahead and reserve a slot for Swedish synthpop trio Niki & The Dove near the top of that chart, too.
For the past few months, the group’s hype train has steadily (and rightfully) chugged along, picking up accolades from major UK press outlets like The Guardian and the BBC’s Sound of 2012 for their first full-length, “Instinct”.
The album shows off their ability to balance 80s pop chops with an experimental bent, simultaneously channeling Kate Bush’s unabashed weirdness and radio-friendly diva smash hits in the Whitney Houston vein.
Niki & The Dove eschew two common synthpop tropes (woozy/hazy nostalgia swamp, sexy/sad android problems) in favor of super-saturated maximalism that uses synths and drumpads in broad, bold strokes.
“Tomorrow”, a standout track from “Instinct”, represents the best of Niki &The Dove’s affinity for emotional and musical excess: a vision of love at the end of the world, where every moment is imbued with a kind of hyper-significance—the last this, the last that. It’s not the only one of their songs that depicts this kind of scenario, and fortunately, that sort of melodrama is a perfect fit for their sound.
Part of this love for melodrama likely stems from the fact that Niki &The Dove started out writing music for live theatre, a medium where you’ve got to be outsized in order for the emotion to weave its way up to the cheap seats, yet subtle enough to not seem clownish.
“DJ, Ease My Mind” strikes that delicate balance, punctuating quiet and reflective moments with end-of-the-world bombast. It’s sophisticated enough to catch your ear, but accessible enough to be greedily snapped up by the music supervisors for MTV’s Teen Wolf.
“The Gentle Roar” features an especially impressive vocal turn from Dahlström. Multi-tracked harmonies and hollow drumpads give it the feel of a playground taunt, Dahlström flipping the mood at will to an ominous whisper or a tearful, heartbreaking worry: “Would she comfort me?” It might be a histrionic way to assemble a song, but it works.
Nostalgia mostly works on a 20-year cycle, and Niki &The Dove neatly bridge the gap between our current socioeconomic climate and our current affinity for repurposing all things 80s.
Though their sound stems from a decade characterized by economic security and material hedonism, their lyrics are attuned to today’s lingering threat that the bottom could drop out any minute, making everything precarious and precious at the same time. That’s not to say Niki &The Dove are only fit to soundtrack a bombed-out club or a dystopian H&M, but man, how good would they sound there?
– Susannah Young