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Live Review: Dungen's redefinition of psychedelia

August 27, 2009 |  1:56 pm


According to an informal Googleable survey, nary a single Dungen review has made it through the opening paragraph without reverting to that most spavined stand-by description: psychedelic. This is no real fault of the writers, but rather a systematic inability of the English language to properly convey the kaleidoscopic sensory derangement wrought by the Swedish four-piece, which on Wednesday night turned the Troubadour into a time warp.

In the last half-decade, Sweden has garnered a binary reputation as a Valhalla for wistful pop done by willowy songwriters (Peter Bjorn and John, Jens Lekman, the Shout Out Louds, etc.), and a cold-water beach paradise that moves to the shuffle of Balearic beats (Studio, Air France, JJ). Dungen fit into neither narrative, and one gets the sense that frontman Gustav Estjes prefers it that way, opting to defy expectations and elude trite taxonomies.

After all, psychedelic rock was supposed to have perished with punk, and apart from a few brief aberrations (the Paisley Underground in Los Angeles, the acid-addled chemistry of the Madchester scene, the Flaming Lips, Spacemen 3 and Mercury Rev), most attempts to channel its purple haze heyday have veered toward self-indulgent guitar noodling accessible only to someone with a Cannabis Club prescription and a spine strong enough to sustain three-hour solo-strangled concerts.

The members of Dungen treat “Hot Rats”-era Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix as a jumping off point -- sky-writing their guitar solos and jazzy piano lines with a distinctive Swedish bent, incorporating such Nordic influences as Träd Gräs and  Stenar, Mikael Ramel and Estjes’ mentor, Jonny Soling, one of Scandinavia’s most venerable fiddlers. In the live setting, a hip-hop influence is subtle but salient, with drummer Fredrik Björling’s cavernous fills replicating the dust and dynamics of classic boom-bap. When Estjes played the first piano bars of Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music,” it was introduced to the audience as “The World Is Yours,” the Nas song that sampled it.

The members of Dungen view psychedelic rock not as a sound, but as an idea — updating the formula without marring it with gimmickry or Guitar World magazine-style showmanship. Estjes stands front and center: long crimp-curls cascading past his shoulders, Converse sneakers, skinny blue jeans and a green T-shirt from his similarly Arcadian-inclined former tour mates, Fleet Foxes. Alternating between a guitar, a tambourine, a piano and the occasional flute solo, the ringer for a young Robert Plant ran through songs from his last three albums, all of them singular masterpieces. Postman-turned-guitar god Reine Fiske chimed in with searing solos that gained a resonance and power from knowing the precise moment to stop.

Regularly switching from brooding thunder-god guitar workouts to flute-laden folky forest trills, to jazzy post-rock, the majority of Estjes’ compositions were recorded in a rural house far removed from city life. Accordingly, the climactic caprices of the Swedish countryside are gorgeously sublimated in the band’s mercurial music.

“Mina Damer och Fasaner,” from last year’s “4,” revealed a delicacy and tenderness alien to the oft-bruising and sausage-fingered attempts that have passed for the last 30 years of psych-rock. While the title track from “Ta Det Lugnt” — the band’s now seminal American debut — demanded a patience endemic to the narcotically inclined, but boasted a coherence far closer to “Bitches Brew” than your average act playing Bonnaroo.

The cumulative effect was the score to an Ingmar Bergman adaptation of “The Electric Kool-Acid Test,” performed by a “Tangerine”-era Led Zeppelin, if they really had come from the land of ice and snow -- an abstruse sort of transcendence impossible to understate or oversell. It’s unlikely that a single audience member understood any of the lyrics, but no one seemed to care. If the prevailing cliché holds that music is the universal language, then last night it was seen fluently speaking Swedish.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Jeff Cowan