El Perro del Mar (or, if my high school Spanish education serves me correctly, “The Dog of the Sea”), the solo project of the unfortunately surnamed Sarah Assbring (perhaps less unfortunate in her native Sweden), produces listener-friendly, at times innocuous indie pop. On her latest Nabokovian titled album, Pale Fire, the young Sea Dog continues to sing sad-souled electronically backed songs about love and isolation. As she confidently struts through rejection and longing, carrying her inner torch through the leaching darkness, repeating self-help anthems on lulling loop, she can at least be admired for her tenacity. Some the soundscapes in which she brazenly “walks on by” exist on the precarious edge between sultry and scary.
Though unable to avoid Swedish pop’s ABBA-haunted legacy, El Perro del Mar nonetheless creates artier and more exotic music than most pop stars. Assbring’s bewitching voice reverberates from an eerie wall of sound. Vocal layers swirl alongside island beats. Dogs bark beside crackling flames on “Love Confusion” before being interrupted by a heroin addict’s dozy monologue on enjoying life as his words slide into “Walk On By.” Syrupy eighties synthpop tones compete with spookier sonic inflections. Bass lines boom and drum machines pound away to rhythms suitable for Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Blondie, and Gwen Stefani yet seem aware that the ice they beat on, the ice Assbring’s voice skates on, contains chilly waters beneath it.
An Olympic effort to “Hold Off the Dawn” is made early on, forgetting the very act’s inadvisability. The arresting drip of “I Was a Boy” entrances with its plaintive nostalgia in spite of a corny Eastern-influenced keyboard line. And then “Dark Night” inevitably devours all by the album’s close, extinguishing the pale fire with a Eurythmics-style chant.
Less nakedly brutal than EMA and lacking the distinction of Björk, El Perro del Mar still designs intricate, progressive pop music. Alternately over and undercooked, Pale Fire, as its name suggests, glows a bit more dully after several listens. Yet in every song there is always an intoxicating spark hidden somewhere within Assbring’s detailed production, encouraging one to give her record’s searching spin another hopeful go around.