Prinspóló have been going a long while now, and in that time they have perfected an Icelandic version of the lo-fi college-rock sound, a bit like the sweet-hearted early days of Yo La Tengo. They’re innately loveable, but I’ve always felt slight frustration watching Prinspóló, as an “ég tala ekki Íslensku ég tala bara ensku” type person. It seems like the lyrics might be as important a part of their charm as their tatty tunes, broad smiles and paper crowns. While the beautiful singing voices of
acts like Pascal Pinon and Ólöf Arnalds might be enough to engage non-English speaking listeners, I wonder if Prinspóló were to make the leap to English from time to time I might “get” them a bit more. Language is a decision every Icelandic band has to wrestle with, with the solution often being to use both on various tracks, but the band often don’t even make a concession to their audience with the between-song banter, meaning a lot of jokes are missed. Still, they’re a really cool band, and the decision to sing is Icelandic is totally their prerogative.
Kwes is up next, and he starts with a deeply relaxed instrumental jam built around a spiralling bassline and some electronic twinkles. It’s a nice intro to a casually-played set of approachable, scruffy songs. There are two keyboards on the stage, one of which is an M-Audio that could be controlling the laptop, a bass that’s shared between Kwes and his female backing player, and a diminutive but rock-solid girl drummer. Some of the synth sounds bring to mind the proggier backing tracks by alt-pop maven John Maus, but there the comparison ends – the songs themselves are more akin to the skew-whiff indie tunes of early Badly Drawn Boy. Kwes’s singing voice is interesting – he has a cockney accent throughout, but sometimes slips out a few notes of beautiful soul-style vibrato, seeming almost self-conscious about using his (clearly wonderful) singing voice to it’s full potential. Case in point is a slow ballad from the in-progress debut album that is mumbled rather than belted out, with the band faltering as they try to grasp meandering tune – maybe the new stuff should stay in the practice room a little while longer. They’re a band still finding their identity and direction, but when Kwes falls to the stage floor for a rock ‘n’ roll keyboard-smacking finale, there’s a rousing response – his potential for greatness is clear.
Sin Fang are up next, fronted by whirring thinkbomb Sindri Már Sigfússon, a wiry intense kid covered in cartoon tattoos. In Iceland, musicians help out in each other’s bands – so in Sin Fang we have the imperious, schoolmarmish Sóley on keyboards and in-demand drummer Maggi Tryggvason performing his usual rhythmic acrobatics. As well as being an extremely tight band, they also provide some inventive flourishes such as a song that dispenses with normal percussion for a complex sequence of handclaps from all five band members before bringing in a banging electronic beat. Sindri’s songwriting is woozy and charming, and songs culled from his third album “Flowers” suggest he won’t be running out of ideas any time soon.
Friends are in what will perhaps become known as the ‘Hercules & Love Affair’ slot. Their sound is some kind of mutant drag-queen disco that veers between early-’90s pop, mid-’80s funk and all kinds of former chart-hit scraps, patched together into a teetering dance-floor-friendly construction. Talking Heads basslines meet Madonna squeals, Bananarama choruses and Neneh Cherry raps, all fronted by two blissed-out singers living out their hair-brush-for-a-mic dreams. It’s at once glorious and preposterous, which confuses me to some degree, in that 50% of me wants to laugh at it, and the other 50% of me wants to dance. So I decide to do both.
For a band with so much happening on the stage, the sound in Reykjavík Art Museum is absolutely perfect for the night’s headliners, Dirty Projectors.
High-life guitar loops sparkle away amongst stuttering stop-start compositions that beggar belief in both ambition and execution. At this point in an Airwaves Saturday night, I take their awkward, contrary approach to rhythm as a dance challenge. I’m like “fuck you guys, make it as difficult as you can! Gimme what you got!”, which turns out to require a lot of epileptic shoulder-twitching and arrhythmic foot shuffling. Trying to dance to Dirty Projectors is really fun, seriously, try it sometime!
Later in the set the ‘difficulty level’ lifts as they morph masterfully into something that skulks on the far left-field edge of pop, with five-part vocal harmonies bringing to mind both contemporary R&B and crackly old Disney soundtracks. But, of course, just when you feel like you have a grasp on this wriggling band, they’re gone again – these songs slip through the cage-bars of conventional song structure at any given opportunity, making them refreshingly difficult to pin down or categorise. Fans of Dirty Projectors might also enjoy improv-rock band Skeletons, who are equally gung-ho in taking the hammer to the traditional musical device of repetition – like an indie Mars Volta perhaps. But anyway, Dirty Projectors utterly own the stage tonight, and it’s really heartening to see such an unconventional band finding an international mass audience. An avant-garde charge into the mainstream creates a lot of space for the interesting bands that follow, and I leave wondering if the next generation of Icelandic bands might have been taking notes from the audience tonight.