The Early Years and The Best of Fra Lippo Lippi
American humorist Michael O'Donoghue famously said (paraphrasing Alexander Pope), "Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy." Extending this proposition--that humor exists in forms that may not become apparent for millennia to come, if ever--Scandinavians just may be the funniest people on the face of the planet. Their pop music legacy is a sublime comedy of errors, a series of brilliant misinterpretations. Norwegian band Fra Lippo Lippi's rarified take on post-punk doesn't embody any less cosmic Scandinavian humor than ABBA does: Both groups interpret pop music in literal terms--they insist that all musical materials exist outside of cultural context, under the universal rubric of "composition"--and the results are unwittingly funny and absurd, a distant cousin to half-assed "world music" and disastrous novelty rock. But this approach can also cast a healthy doubt on our assumptions about seemingly insular genres like punk and soft rock, and that's a witty thing for an easy-listening record to do.
Fra Lippo Lippi formed in Oslo in 1980 as a Joy Division-style goth-dirge group and disbanded around 1994 or so as a full-fledged soft rock act with Top 10 hits in Norway and the Philippines and a minor hit in England ("Shouldn't Have to Be Like That"). The surprising thing is how little they had to change in the process. On The Early Years, which comprises their first two albums, they conjure the moodscape end of the early Manchester sound with a European ear--a carefully built fugue rather than an atavistic jam (Factory Benelux as opposed to Factory proper). Singer Per Øystein Sørensen sounds like Peter Murphy in places, but he situates himself in the music not as an Imagist siren, but as a faceless, artfully engaged instrument--a gothonium. FLL never considered headache-inducing caterwauling a part of post-punk's musical license, nor did they consider post-punk's sonic building blocks to be exempt from classical manipulation, as repellent as the idea sounds on paper.
FLL's plucky formalism lead them to ABBA's Polar Studio in Sweden to make their third album, and then to L.A. and Steely Dan's Walter Becker to realize their opus, an ostensive stab at the American charts (both albums are represented on The Best of). The result of the latter recording session was Light and Shade, a snooze-rock masterpiece that imagines Brian Eno's ambient aesthetic as the missing link between atmospheric new wave and "lifestyle music." This is an idea Steely Dan toyed with as well--crafting an album whose sublime melodies and transparent rhythms are so downplayed that they're not heard so much as felt as background ambiance. If you try to judge them on any other level, you're missing the point and the punch line.
Eno presides over FLL's music--and soft rock at large--as a philosopher who, like many 20th-century thinkers, is only selectively understood. Nowadays, common wisdom holds that hookless atmospheric electronic music (Autechre) is hip while hooky atmospheric pop music (Enya) isn't, though they serve the same purpose: wallpaper for the skull. That's Eno's big joke: No matter how outré, rock music is always pop culture, and so, unlike art, it's not about what you listen to, but how and where and why. If Fra Lippo Lippi say anything, it's that tastes change but behavior doesn't. Art is what happens on the way to the record store--after that, you're on your own.