Karin Park Highwire Poetry(State of the Eye) Buy it from Insound
It's admirable just how unafraid Karin Park is of inviting comparison to a certain other Karin; The Knife/Fever Ray's Dreijer-Andersson. Not that really much invitation is needed, as the two not only plough a fairly similar furrow musically but sound uncanily similar vocally (although, perhaps wisely, Park doesn't really go in for the pitch-shifting antics that have become Dreijer-Andersson's trademark). Generally in this sort of situation though, the stock response for the artist is to mumble something non-committal and attempt to change the subject, or to feign complete ignorance, but in the promotional material for Highwire Poetry the influence is clearly acknowledged, with the production work of Dreijer-Andersson's former collaborator Christoffer Berg deliberately highlighted.
Not that Park is merely some copycat act, nor, for that matter, is The Knife the only musical touchstone when it comes to describing her - her drawn-out vowels could be said to be Björk-esque, and, while their musical playgrounds may be somewhat different, Park has something of an affinity with Robyn as both had years of some success in Scandinavia as out and out pop artists before emerging as newcomers to the international scene with material that took a slight left turn (Highwire Poetry is in fact Park's fourth album, but her first with the UK label State of the Eye).
Honestly though, comparisons are the hallmark of lazy criticism. So, taken on its own terms, what exactly does Highwire Poetry sound like?
Musically, it's all fairly slick, sophisticated electronica, from Restless' take on Giogio Moroder with a bit of a swing in his step (comparisons may be bad criticism, but they're unfortunately very hard to ditch entirely), through the skittering Fryngies and the grimy rumble of Tiger Dreams. While there is variety here, the overriding sense that it's all (with the possible exceptions of Tension's clattering, increasingly complex beat and distant hum or the trance-indebted blast of Thousand Loaded Guns) fairly muted in order to serve the voice. Which is understandable as it's quite an arresting thing (even considering the aforementioned comparisons); when dialed back it's glacially attractive, when she pushes it to its breaking point, as in the hollered "step-by-step" that forms Fryngies' main hook, or the extraordinarily lengthy notes of New Era, it's almost overwhelming.
Perhaps the best indicator of what to expect from Highwire Poetry comes from some of the promotional imagery of Park. (Yes, discussing a female artist in relation to her looks is an uncomfortable, insidious trend in music criticism, but once again it's mentioned in the press release - the word "Amazonian" is actually trotted out at one point - so I'm choosing to believe that they started it). In one particularly striking image the willowy, model-like figure of Park looms, statuesque, out of the gloom, while the close up portrait that serves as the album cover draws attention to her severe, close-cropped hair, indicating that there is something tough and hard-edged about her material, but also very feminine, even sensual.
Or to put it more bluntly, it's all about sex.
Not that that's completely unexpected; lead single Tiger Dreams saw Park spill her subconscious urges, informing us that "I'm a runner, I'm a hunter". Elsewhere she details the submitting of her personality (as difficult as that is to believe, given the forthrightness of her vocal abilities) to a new lover on the sweet-natured Wildchild and spews out a fair amount of physiological imagery throughout the album, culminating in the fairly literal, possibly premature, ejaculation of Explosions and its single entendre perv-pop (to be fair, it probably wasn't intended to be viewed as filth, but then seeing it that way certainly doesn't detract its sense of giddiness).
Such outpourings sit, to an extent, in opposition to the almost stereotypically-Scandinavian austerity of the music. Perhaps as a result of Park's pure pop past there's a brutal efficiency to Highwire Poetry, with its ten tracks all done and dusted in less than forty minutes, a quality that has both positives (is that a stylophone that opens Wildchild?) and negatives. With material this dramatic (of course New Era would go for broke in invoking "the new Jesus" and "the new Judas") her voice could really do with a bit more space around it to cut through the atmosphere (and on a related note, Thousand Loaded Guns might well have the potential to be a dancefloor smash if the label sees fit to put together a 12" mix).
Particularly heavy on the atmospherics is 6000 Years, a track which at best could be described with the fairly loaded response of "interesting", particularly when the comparisons to Dreijer-Andersson and Björk are taken in to consideration, featuring as it does a brief lapse into the vocoder-use of the former (although for different purposes - The Knife used the technology to sound demonic, Park comes off more like Deneuve), and a nighttime boating-lark narrative similar to the latter's There's More to Life Than This. It's a big ask expecting audiences to not find it a bit ridiculous what with the dramatic monologues and the doomy intonation of the words "something different" that suggest that this is a night out you'd be lucky to survive, no matter how entrancing the background chants are.
To be honest, those who find a bit of melodrama in their music to be anathema would probably be advised to steer clear of Highwire Poetry. Or most of it at least; tucked away at the end, under a puzzle of a title is the genuine surprise of Bending Albert's Law, a quiet, London-set account of home-and-heartsickness that could have been performed by Robyn in one of her more introspective moments, and which provides the album with the perfect send-off.
It's an odd situation to be referring to a multiple (Norwegian) Grammy winner as one of the most interesting discoveries of the year, but that's precisely what Park is. Perhaps she needed this time to mature as an artist, or to find a team receptive to her talents? More likely though it's just taken the English-language audience this long to catch up with her. While not immune to a few head-scratching moments, and a bit exhausting if listened to as a whole, Highwire Poetry serves as further proof that Scandinavia is the place to look for for the best in pop right now, and should go down well with those who were looking for a bit more focus from Niki and the Dove, those who got sick of waiting for The Knife to release a new album, or those who just like their romantic listening to be a bit noir.12 June, 2012 - 09:05 — Mark Davison