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I’m From Barcelona: Who Killed Harry Houdini?

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October 15, 2008  |  8:00am
I&#8217;m From Barcelona: <em>Who Killed Harry Houdini?</em>
Colossal band doesn't want to grow up

"In my heart, still a kid,” Emanuel Lundgren sings on Who Killed Harry Houdini? the new album by Swedish group I’m From Barcelona. In fact, he sings the line in two different songs.

The first time is on “Mingus,” a contemplation of an old friend who’s  settled down in suburbia with a wife, kid and “four-wheel drive.” With horror, Lundgren reacts, “Oh my god.” He sings the line a second time on “Rufus,” a plea to an imaginary 10-foot dog from the singer’s childhood to come and rescue him from the fate glimpsed in the earlier song. He wants to make an escape worthy of Houdini, his childhood idol. He’s not ready yet to be a conventional adult; in his heart he’s still a kid.

It’s a feeling everyone has in the first few months after finally leaving school; it’s a feeling that never completely goes away, that deserves a sound bigger than a conventional rock band. It deserves horns, choirs, synths, multiple guitars and circus percussion, and that’s what it gets from I’m From Barcelona, an ensemble that lists 28 members on its website and often takes most of them on tour. The group is an attempt to grasp the expansive pop 
grandeur of ’60s producers such as Phil Spector and George Martin—not by hiring anonymous session pros, but by having a band large enough to cover every need.

“Mingus,” a jaunty pop ditty with chiming glockenspiel and la-la-la-ing female singers, is reminiscent of Spector’s early experiments inflating teenage heartbreak to operatic proportions. “Rufus,” a seven-minute extravaganza complete with massed horns, voices, synths, guitars and handclaps, recalls Martin’s work on Sgt. Pepper. If Lundgren—the band’s founder, chief songwriter and lead singer—doesn’t quite match his role models, he comes close enough to do justice to his chosen theme: the stubborn belief that you shouldn’t have to give up the joy and unpredictability of adolescence as you confront the realities of adulthood.

As the album’s title implies, Lundgren is fascinated with the possibilities of escape from this conundrum. “Andy,” which sounds very much like David Bowie’s early singles, uses sci-fi synths and heavy-echoed vocal harmonies to suggest that joining a band is like taking off in a spaceship. “Headphones” is more explicit; with the hypnotic music-box motifs, the song evokes the feeling of putting in your ear buds and shutting out the world. “Now I’m gone,” Lundgren warbles, “with my head in a cloud.”

But other songs cast doubt on escapism as an ultimate solution. The first verse of “Music Killed Me” echoes the lulling atmospherics of “Headphones,” but the weather soon grows darker as slashing rock pushes to the fore and underlines the morbid lyric, “Music almost took my life.” “Gunhild” describes a woman who has removed herself so much that the song begins with static and chatter, as if she can only be reached by ham radio.  “I know that you are hiding in there,” Lundgren sings over a sad organ. “Can I let you out?”

Lundgren’s fragmentary lyrics are more likely to point toward a song’s subject matter than to really dig into it, and his modest tenor is more personable than thrilling. But he has a rare knack for catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms that grab the ear, and also for arrangements that enlarge these simple elements into the enveloping emotional weather accompanying these tug-of-wars between adolescence and adulthood, escapism and reality. And Lundgren has a large cast of collaborators, willing and able to help him get any sound he wants.

On the album’s first single, “Paper Planes,” he matches his best hook to his best lyric, a description of a kid in his first urban apartment. Lying alone in bed, the kid can hear an old man practicing clarinet, a young couple making love, a family watching The Cosby Show, a tomcat chasing a female in heat. A chiming glockenspiel rings out the chorus melody as the singer declares “I’m throwing paper planes to clear my head.” It’s good to clear one’s head, but paper airplanes are not good escape vehicles. Sooner or later, the song implies, you have to put the headphones aside, put on your shoes, unlock the door and step out into the world.

Listen to I'm From Barcelona's "Headphones" from Who Killed Harry Houdini?:

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