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Nov 11

Peter Bjorn and John: “Young Folks”

Writer's Block

PB&J, towering over the Swedish indie-pop competition.

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Some songs have something in their melody that just sticks in your brain for hours, sometimes days, on end. Ever wonder why that is? What is the specific element of music that creates the aural equivalent of the hooked barbs that prevent a porcupine quill from being extracted easily from skin? Sadly, I have no more answer than you, only specific examples of songs, or bits of songs, that have that effect. What it is that determines “catchiness” is a subject probably too extensive and too tied in to brain function than can sufficiently be discussed here. But if I find out anything worth passing along, I’ll let you know.

Meantime, I have here Exhibit A (or whichever letter we might actually be up to, given that there are certainly a number of other songs that I’ve posted about that are known to have this effect): “Young Folks,” by Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John (yes, their real first names). Interesting that this is the third band from Sweden that has been featured here on Reselect — I mean, that’s only three out of ~115 so far, but that still seems like a fairly high ratio given all the other countries out there. Maybe I’m a Swedophile (if that’s a real word) and didn’t even realize it. Hmm.

So anyway, “Young Folks.” If the bass line/whistling portion of this song doesn’t just sit in your head for the rest of the day today, there’s a relatively good chance that you are, in fact, a porcupine and not a human. Just saying. And not that being a porcupine is anything to be ashamed of. But Peter Bjorn and John probably knew what they were doing when they came up with this, although apparently the actual whistling was supposed to have been a placeholder for another instrument, which ultimately never materialized once they realized that it worked just fine as it was.

It doesn’t hurt that the sparseness of the song is so attention-grabbing. Sure, it would’ve still been a good song with more instrumentation, but having the vocals so far forward over such a spartan backing really pricks up your ears, rather than having the song blend into the background. The way the vocals are just a bit flat actually works well for the song — there’s this shuffling backbeat and shaker to propel the song along at a nicely brisk pace, but then the vocals are sung somewhat lazily, which serves as a great counterpoint and adds a bit of tension. The great female guest vocals are provided by Victoria Bergsman, former singer for The Concretes (yet another Swedish band that might show up here eventually!). In toto, it makes for one heck of a perfect single — when you release a song like this, you could get away with not having an album to go along with it. [One more unrelated aside here: Using the phrase “in toto” suddenly makes me think of the old Groucho Marx joke: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Thought it was worth mentioning.]

As it so happens, though, PB&J (as they’re so cutely known) released the accompanying 2006 album, Writer’s Block, and it’s a consistently good album worth checking out in its own right. Just be sure you’re ready for the onslaught of whistling that’s bound to follow. Unless you’re a porcupine.

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