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Coachella 2009 Day 3: Peter Bjorn and John (and Robyn and Lykke Li and bongos)

April 19, 2009 |  6:49 pm

Pbj250 What a joy and a drag it must be to have a single where the sight of the mere equipment needed to play it can lift a main-stage crowd to its feet.

"The bongos mean bongo action" said singer Peter Morén, which also meant that Peter Bjorn and John's biggest hit, the inescapable and whistle-addled "Young Folks," was impending. Instantly, what had been an audience befuddled by the band's recent dabbling in crisp kraut-funk shot to the center field and started grinding.  Such is the curse of the Swedish trio, who have one wonderful hit and four albums' worth of inviting, but more testy, great ideas.

Those who remember Whistlegate around the band's first U.S. shows would have noticed a similar oddness in their main-stage set -- the hugely talented trio is still figuring out how to articulate their pop minutiae live. The pleasures of their albums are many, but small and studio-driven -- a perfect wash of reverb, a sad and brittle guitar tone. Their pop instincts are strong, and onstage, they have a deadpan Scandinavian charm about them, but re-tooling their many working parts as a live trio has long been their last hurdle.

"Living Thing," their newest album, doesn't simplify things, as it's even more beat-driven and production-skewed than earlier work. However, the boom-bap-driven "Nothing to Worry About" is a fine single, and it got a chirping assist from pop tart countrywoman Robyn. It's no wonder they've backed up Kanye West: the band can steer a minimalist drum loop in many winning directions.

But as worthy an effort as the "Living Thing" cuts were, the difference between them and the more straightforward indie-pop was palpable. "Up Against the Wall" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" brimmed with effervescent distortion and steely good hooks that stood on their own with fine and creative drumming from John Eriksson. Comely wraith Lykke Li had a loose but endearing turn in the "Young Folks" duet, but the set mostly underscored how a band at the height of its creative powers can still be untangling the best ways to use them.

-- August Brown  

Photo of Peter Morén by Kevin Winter/Getty Images