Pål Waaktaar’s most adventurous album to date
Savoy were originally conceived as a vehicle for Pål Waaktaar’s songs whilst a-ha were on hiatus in the mid-to-late 1990s. Featuring Waaktaar’s wife Lauren Savoy (on guitar and vocals) and drummer Frode Unneland (an established musician on the Norwegian music scene who’d been in bands such as Pompel & The Pilts and Chocolate Overdose), the band have released six albums to date. See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown, which takes its title from the lyrics of latest single ‘January Thaw’, is their first release in over a decade. In the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Q&A section of Drabant Music’s press release, Unneland asks Waaktaar to choose between a-ha and Savoy: “I really just look upon it as different paths to release music that I’m passionate about,” Waaktaar replies. “I feel the same about the album I made with Zoe Gnecco. “It’s funny; once you start thinking about making an album, no matter what the band is, that’s when the songs start to appear.”
With the release last year of the career-invigorating MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice, a-ha’s stock hasn’t been as high since their mid-80s heyday. Guitarist – and main songwriter – Waaktaar was particularly busy in 2017. Aside from contributing a new song – the country-tinged ‘A Break In The Clouds’ – to Summer Solstice, the 56-year old musician also released the impressive album World Of Trouble, a collaboration with New York singer Zoe Gnecco that slipped by virtually unnoticed as attentions switched to a-ha’s acoustic project. He was also the subject of the Norwegian-language book Tårer Fra En Stein (‘Tears From A Stone’) by journalist Ørjan Nilsson that has attracted some very favourable notices. It was also announced that Waaktaar had mixed Poem, the second (unreleased) album by pre-a-ha band Bridges, while a brand new album by Savoy was also pencilled in for September release, but delayed due to the October release of Summer Solstice. With a limited window available before a-ha commence their acoustic tour, Savoy can finally release their long-awaited new opus.
The recent flurry of activity in the Waaktaar household has, in part, been precipitated by the departure of the couple’s son True August (who has recently enrolled at college), but Pål Waaktaar is certainly no stranger to hard work and song prolificacy. In fact, there was one particularly crazy 6-year period in Waaktaar’s music career, with the prolific songwriter releasing six albums between 1999 and 2005 as he alternated between a-ha and Savoy. Whilst Waaktaar would later concede that running the two bands concurrently was “madness”, some brilliant music was recording during this period; including the critically acclaimed albums Lackluster Me and Mountains Of Time, which represented his best set of songs since 1986’s Scoundrel Days. Latest album See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown is Savoy’s first all-new collection of songs since 2004’s self-titled set, although there was something of a futile attempt to bring their music to a wider audience in 2007 with the release of the Savoy Songbook (a collection of re-recordings and new songs).
Commitments to a-ha and other projects delayed the release of new Savoy material and, bizarrely, such was the length of their hiatus, another Brooklyn-based electronic rock band named Savoy sprang up in their place. “I couldn’t believe it,” Waaktaar told Dagbladet. “We take a little break, and these guys show up!” Though the couple were clearly disappointed, wife Lauren was able to make light of the situation: “We should have arranged a ‘Battle of the Bands’ at a local bar and settled the case there!”
Since the release of Savoy Songbook, Vol. 1, drummer Frode Unneland has busied himself with the Bergen-based ‘supergroup’ Evig Din For Alltid, releasing a number of albums on Apollon Records (the same label that has reissued Savoy’s Lackluster Me and Mountains Of Time albums in recent years). Meanwhile, Lauren Savoy – who has directed several a-ha videos – has resumed her career as a filmmaker, releasing the award-winning 12-minute short Scent Of A Woman in 2013. But it hasn’t been all plain sailing, as she explained to online business strategist, Gry Sinding: “I had my heart kind of broken. With a friend of mine, Halley [Wegryn Gross], we had written a TV pilot for a television series and had applied to Sundance [Film Festival] – they have a very prestigious writer’s lab – and we were a finalist, down from, like, thousands to twenty, and from twenty they picked ten… and we got cut. This took the wind out of my sails, because it would have meant so much in America. And we had gone so far, and we were one of the last to be rejected.” But, despite this setback for the London Film School graduate, who married Pål in December 1991, she has continued to develop ideas for both film and television, including a series centred around controversial radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
A first glance at the tracklisting for See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown revealed a brace of tracks that stemmed from the period of uncertainty following a-ha’s retirement-that-never-was in 2010. There were certainly a few false starts as Waaktaar pondered his future when a-ha bowed out ‘on a high note’. ‘Manmade Lake’ had originally been considered for both a-ha’s Foot Of The Mountan album and, later, a solo album. The solo project was abandoned as Waaktaar focused his attentions on a-ha’s comeback album Cast In Steel, but a version of ‘Manmade Lake’, under the Waaktaar moniker, did see the light of day, courtesy of a surprise free download in February 2014. “It’s been a favourite of mine for a while,” he told a-ha.com. “It was written around the overdriven guitar riff in the outro and I’ve been looking for a way to present it. The voice is run through a guitar amp which I thought strengthened the mood and related to the words, particularly in the second verse. Sort of like a ground-to-air type voice.” The original track is certainly charming, with a lo-fi production that recalled acts such as Grandaddy and R.E.M. (circa Monster). But the new Savoy version, described by Waaktaar as more “grown-up”, features drum parts performed by Joe Mardin (who had also played on Waaktaar & Zoe’s World Of Trouble), and it certainly benefits from a more natural – and less distorted – approach.
Another track recorded during this period was ‘Weathervane’, which Waaktaar had been commissioned to write for Morten Tyldum’s 2011 movie Hodejegerne (‘Headhunters’), a huge box office hit in Norway. The track featured Jimmy Gnecco – the father of Zoe Gnecco – who had previously guested on ‘The Breakers’ on Savoy’s self-titled fifth album. Featuring a synth-pop backing that almost seemed purpose-built for a-ha, the melancholic track relayed a scenario in which Waaktaar had been left at home for a week while Lauren Savoy holidayed in London (“So you’re going for a week to sort out your head/ So you left me here to keep things going”). The new Savoy version employs a slower tempo and strips away the piano that characterized the original track, while the new lead vocal by Waaktaar is imbued with distortion. “We’re using an old microphone that used to be a telephone on the song, so it sounds like it’s recorded a hundred years ago,” explained Waaktaar during a recent video interview. “Frode is doing his best sort of band harmonies on the pre-chorus, where he’s being [The Band’s] Richard Manuel and Rick Danko at the same time!”
The ephemeral ‘Bump’ was originally written by Lauren Savoy for inclusion in the film Scent Of A Woman, which was shortlisted for several awards, winning ‘Best Short’ at the Broad Humor Film Festival in 2013. Described as ‘a short film about love, sex and lactose intolerance’, it featured Ryan Eggold (a current regular in crime thriller series The Blacklist) amongst its small cast. The album’s lightest – and most throwaway – number, it features some catchy Beach Boys-esque harmonies.
Stretching back even further is the gorgeous ‘Falls Park’. On both Cast In Steel and World Of Trouble, Waaktaar unearthed some real gems from a-ha’s earliest days (notably ‘She’s Humming A Tune’ and ‘They To Me And I To Them’), and Savoy’s latest album features a song that actually predates both a-ha and Bridges, written when Waaktaar was just 16 years old. “It’s still fresh,” Waaktaar said recently. “I hear it on the album with new songs right next to it [and] it doesn’t feel any different.” With some lovely vignettes (“I watch from afar/ Lunch bag and tea in a jar/ Whistling leaves and distant cars/ Falls Park/ I watch from afar”) set against a simple bossa nova backing to accentuate its vintage, it’s certainly one of the highlights of the new album.
Whilst the surprise inclusion of whimsical songs such as ‘Falls Park’ are a welcome addition to Savoy’s impressive back catalogue of songs, perhaps the biggest surprise on this album – given the somewhat piecemeal recording process – is just how fresh and contemporary it sounds. The strong use of modular synths mark this out as a Savoy album unlike any other, and certainly one that’s more in tune with the synth-pop stylings of a-ha. Sure, Waaktaar has experimented with synths before on previous Savoy albums (see ‘Foreign Film’ and ‘Fearlist’), whilst tracks such as ‘Laundromat’ and ‘Open Face’ (from last year’s World Of Trouble) provided portents of a more electronic direction… but not to this extent. Album opener – and first single – ‘Night Watch’ (featuring a-ha’s regular drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg), certainly sets the tone. The lyrics, which feature a simple “just let it go” refrain, are conventional enough, and there’s a euphonious blend of U2-like guitar work and keyboards… but listeners are taken on a somewhat bonkers detour with its playful mid-section of squelchy synths.
Tracks such as ‘A Month Of Sundays’ see the band exhibiting a more goth-tronic sound (described by Lauren Savoy as “dark dance”), not dissimilar to Birmingham band Editors (see their third album In This Light And On This Evening). Elsewhere, the wonderfully titled ‘Shy Teens Suffering Silently’ combines cold synth sounds – à la Gary Numan – with mid-period Beatles pop sensibilities.
In his book The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, former Go-Betweens frontman Robert Forster claims in rule 2 that “the second-last song on every album is the weakest”. This doesn’t apply to Savoy’s ‘Sunlit Byways’, which is arguably the catchiest track on the album (“It puts me in a good mood when I listen to that song,” Lauren Savoy said recently). Whilst Waaktaar recently stated that “you can never get enough distortion”, the vocals do let the track down slightly, but it’s a lovely pop song that resonates with both warmth and optimism (“When we walk/ Through sunlit byways/ Grab my hand/ When things go sideways/ As they sometimes will”).
Overall this is a confident – and surprisingly seamless – collection; playful, adventurous, and boasting a production that benefits from retaining its rough edges. In fact, it’s the perfect companion piece to last year’s World Of Trouble. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another ten years for the next one…
See The Beauty In Your Drab Hometown is released by Drabant Music on 12th January.
Savoy, featuring Linn Frøkedal (from Misty Coast) on keyboards and Chris Holm on bass, will be performing at Parkteatret in Oslo on 11th January, with special guest Zoe Gnecco.
Many thanks to Matea Grøvik at Drabant Music.
Photographs by Jason Brandenberg.