Like Limp Bizkit and Alien Ant Farm before her, Mr Little Jeans (née Monica Birkenes) found fame in a cover. Awash in foamy seashore synths, the Norwegian singer’s moody rendition of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” is striking. It also sounds pretty much nothing like the songs that surround it. That’s because, unlike the aforementioned rap-rockers, Birkenes’s famous cover is also her weakest song. Pocketknife, her debut LP, proves Mr Little Jeans knows a thing or two about marketing: lure them with something familiar, hook them with something good.
“Mercy” might be the best of the bunch, a maelstrom of drums, hissing distortion, and classical strings that climax with a refrain (“your hands are tied”) that’s as menacing as it is hypnotic. Indeed, many of Pocketknife’s best moments unnerve like so much smeared lipstick, but Birkenes also succeeds when she gets sentimental. Her trick? Give the sappiest lines to a children’s choir: “When you feel like you’re out there on your own/ Know there is someone watching over you,” the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Youth Chorale assures us on “Oh Sailor”, a soul-warming ballad that, after melting your ventricles, replaces each with a heart-shaped lollipop. Too many synthpop records coagulate into an indistinguishable lump by track 10, but Pocketknife is surprisingly diverse, with nearly every song offering a hook or refrain that feels textured, vital, and, perhaps most importantly, of a piece.
Still, though, there is a sloppiness here, smudges that mark Pocketknife as not just a debut album, but also one that’s been gestating for a touch too long. Though Birkenes plucked her nom de plume from an obscure character in Rushmore, her music bears little resemblance to Wes Anderson’s clean, economical style. Several of these songs are a minute too long, and the record itself could stand to lose a couple tracks. My votes go to the plastic-wrapped “Lady Luck” and “The Suburbs”, which is out of place tonally and lyrically. I’d just hate to see Birkenes defined by a cover when her own music is this good.
Essential Tracks: “Mercy”, “Oh Sailor”, and “Good Mistake”