Peter Bjorn & John

"Living Thing" (Almost Gold Recordings) -- 2.5 STARS

If you were conscious and paying at least some passing attention to popular culture in 2006 or 2007, chances are you remember the infectious whistled hook and pitter-patter bongos of Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks.” Its innate cuteness won enough hearts to pass into mainstream consciousness and catapult the Swedish trio to relative renown. Its sheer ubiquity was perhaps best revealed when Kanye West remixed it on his mixtape “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” PB&J; followed up the success of “Young Folks” with a couple pleasant but unmemorable diversions: an album of instrumentals called “Seaside Rock” and frontman Peter Morén’s surprisingly vapid solo debut “The Last Tycoon.” In January, the band’s return-to-form was announced by none other than Kanye, who introduced the first single from PB&J;’s fifth studio album, “Living Thing,” on his blog. The bumptious auteur gloated, “THEY SENT THE SONG TO ME FIRST!” and went on to wax lyrically, “DRUMS ARE CRAZY AND I LIKE THE KIDS ON THE HOOK.” Kanye is totally right. “Nothing to Worry About” is contagious and compelling—all in all, a better song than “Young Folks.” If only the rest of the songs on “Living Thing” had come close to matching the single’s riotous energy and imagination, we would have had a real winner on our hands.

“Living Thing” starts off with the shimmering synths and brutal drum machine beats of opener “The Feeling.” Spasmodic guitars and tidy handclaps round out the atmosphere. “It Don’t Move Me” carries over the same handclaps, placing them over a piano riff borrowed from Björk’s “Human Behaviour.” Like PB&J;’s last album, “Living Thing” is marked by propulsive and insistent percussion, but here the rhythm section is mixed even further to the forefront, often louder than the guitars or vocals. From the reverbed crashes of “Lay it Down,” evocative of chain-gang pick-axes, to the deeply resonating tribal drums on the dirge “4 out of 5,” the band’s meticulous attention to texture is evident in each of the twelve songs on “Living Thing.” Kanye’s caps-locked infatuation with the band is perhaps most understandable in the context of this new preoccupation with aural textures.

However, “PB&J;” often seems to mistake inventive production for good material. Every song on the album has interesting stylistic touches, but they frequently lack the melody and songwriting to come together into a coherent whole. While it is admirable that PB&J; take an active interest in the construction of their soundscapes, one wonders if they should have spent more time replicating the winning formula of “Young Folks” before they started tweaking the details.

The band’s stylistic influences are diverse but perhaps at the sacrifice of coherence. “I Want You!” with its midtempo ambling New Wave guitar and echoed bass drum, sounds like an early U2 track, and the vocal and lyrical style and African-inflected bass of “Living Thing” directly channels Vampire Weekend’s watered-down “Graceland” vibe. As already established by Mr. West, “Nothing to Worry About” is an elation, a nearly perfectly-constructed hip-hop influenced indie-pop dance song with a nonsensical yet addicting chorus. “Lay it Down” marks the other high point of the record. With its jaunty tone and insolent chorus of “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / You’re starting to piss me off,” it acts as the stylistic twin to “Nothing to Worry About.” But just when you’re starting to join in on the rollicking angry energy, the song ends, and “Stay This Way” drags the whole mess down into plaintive misdirection as Morén sings “I don’t want to grow up / I don’t want to stay young” over a maddeningly meandering synth flute.

“Blue Period Picasso” is narrated from, unsurprisingly, the point-of-view of a Blue period Picasso painting. It is as bad as it sounds. Case in point: “But I’m not just being blue… It’s just a part of what I am / It’s just a part of my beating heart.” It turns out that PB&J; are far weaker when gunning for clever or thoughtful than when they’re at their most crass and impudent. This is where they seem to have the most fun and, in turn, where their music is the most fun to listen to.

There’s not anything particularly offensive about most of these songs, but outside of “Lay it Down” and “Nothing to Worry About,” this album isn’t particularly interesting or memorable. Certainly, making a boring album is not the worst sin a band can commit, but Peter Bjorn & John have proven themselves capable of producing more exciting music than this. In “The Feeling,” Peter Morén sings, “Been waiting for signs / Last time we got high we thought we had the puzzle worked out.” Maybe they should be doing some more stoned brainstorming, or maybe Kanye can help them out, but one hopes that Peter Bjorn & John start making the fine albums that their singles deserve.