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POP MUSIC REVIEW

El Perro del Mar makes heartbreak beautiful

March 15, 2007|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

WHILE Diana Ross was busy coaching "American Idol" hopefuls on TV Tuesday night, an unlikely heir to the girl-group sound that Ross helped invent took the stage at the new Ex_Plx, channeling the original Dreamgirl's bewitching combination of heartbreak and hope.

Sarah Assbring is a mild-mannered Swede who records under the name El Perro del Mar, a handle she says was inspired by a visit to a Spanish beach, where a mysterious dog reminded her of the wonder of life (or something).

Last year Assbring released a quietly mesmerizing CD stocked with gorgeous home-studio re-creations of Supremes-era pop; tunes such as "I Can't Talk About It" and "God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)" miniaturize the string-soaked splendor of those old-school hits for the iPod era. Lyrically, Assbring contemplates the intolerability of loneliness, but, like Ross, she actually sounds comforted by melancholy. Lovers may come and go, their music tells us, but sadness will never leave you truly alone.

Aided in the 700-capacity room downstairs from the Echo by three scruffy-looking sidemen on guitars and keyboards, Assbring brought that emotional complexity to life by flirting with -- but never quite giving into -- the catharsis built into a great melody. Throughout her 12-song set, she shied away from her songs' peaks, handing them off to her bandmates, who provided precise flourishes of instrumental color where you'd typically expect a singer to let loose. A shrewd stylist, Assbring never let loose; instead, she presented an alluring opacity that challenged conventional notions of how a woman in distress behaves.

She came close to achieving some satisfaction at the end of the show, in a relatively rowdy version of Lou Reed's "I Found a Reason" that threatened to rupture the rest of the set's studied sheen. Even then, Assbring's comfort came from somewhere cold: her record collection.

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