Mr. Little Jeans - Pocketknife | Album Review | By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
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Mr. Little Jeans

Pocketknife

An uncommonly confident introduction.

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Author: on April 4, 2014
7.0
Sony Music Australia

As a debut record, Pocketknife takes after its namesake in more ways than one. Slight yet sharp, utilitarian yet versatile, it’s an uncommonly confident introduction, even as it tends to meander into the tried and true lanes of other female electro-pop artists, lanes that have become increasingly interchangeable. There’s some Lykke Li in Mr Little Jeans compositions and predilection for overcast tones, a lilting delivery that touches on Nina Persson and some of the vigor of Ladyhawke. The Los Angeles-by-way-of-Norway artist also known as Monica Birkenes has little trouble establishing a voice, albeit one that tends to shift with the fluid moods of the synths that populate the record. Pocketknife is at once clever and frothy as it is cerebral and withdrawn, as if Birkenes is reticent to fully sketch out a more private portrait. The record’s long-gestation period, pockmarked with the occasional blog blip and a wrenching, perfect cover of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” no doubt has a hand in this, but on the whole it’s a shiftlessness that only becomes apparent on repeated listens. At its heart, Pocketknife is a nifty, incisive little thing, easy to appreciate and a pleasure to use.

Pocketknife leads off with the bubbly “Rescue Song,” where Birkenes promises she’ll “rescue you, so you can rescue me too” while the drums propel that major key chorus to a place deep in the base of your brain, where, well, good luck getting it out. It’s an utterly weightless bit of pop confectionary, a fitting palette cleanser for the even more insistent lyrical trifle “Runaway” and the twee-as-fuck “Oh Sailor,” which prominently features L.A’s Silverlake Conservatory of Music Youth Chorale. It’s a far cry from her rendition of “The Suburbs,” which makes an encore appearance here after racking up millions of views on YouTube a couple years ago. That song encapsulated all the promise of Mr Little Jeans in one fitting five-minute sample, dark and mysterious and making the ennui of suburbia feel very threatening and compellingly elemental. In Birkenes’ voice and grimy, haunted synths, Win Butler’s lyrics became more fully realized than the original managed – the rare cover that transforms its source material into an even greater success. Here, however, “The Suburbs” is an anomaly in a sea of inventive production and melodic highs that rarely plumb deeper than their insistent four-on-the-floor beats.

That may sound like a criticism, but it’s an unwarranted one. “The Suburbs” may stand out initially, but Birkenes’s songwriting chops and deep bag of production tricks makes Pocketknife multifaceted enough to succeed at what it plainly sets out to do, the unexpected wallop of “The Suburbs” notwithstanding. “Good Mistake” rides a sinister pulse along Birkenes’ ambiguous lyrics and sardonic lyrical perspective, while “Far From Home” inverts Birkenes’ inherent pop catchiness into a straightforward, soul-crushing ballad. When Birkenes casts aside the songwriting cloak, as on “Far From Home” or the hazy, gorgeous “Haunted,” she’s as intimate a songwriter as any. Yet Birkenes is often at her best when she’s playing the role of a devious guide, pairing obtuse imagery with a warped sense of hooks and a penchant for turning those skittish drum machines and ethereal guitars into a vaguely spooky blend, be it on the gauzy sheen of “Mercy” or the hectic, mischievous production on “Lady Luck.” Even when Pocketknife lags, as it does on its back end and in the unnecessarily extended coda to “Valentine,” it’s easy to see Birkenes’ ambition, her refusal to be pigeonholed onto an easily circumscribed notch on the FM dial. A bit of cutting here, some honing there – Pocketknife is a record on the verge of being greater than the sum of its parts. As is, it’s nevertheless an album that is a joy to listen to, even if you wish it drew just a bit more blood.

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