Centered around the varied and estimable talents of longtime Elephant 6 collaborator Heather McIntosh, The Instruments' new record culls from such disparate and beautiful influences as Sufi Devotional Music, the old country waltz, Nico's dunn cathedrals of song, and atmospherically harmonic pop emanating from somewhere way out near Eno's weird Green World. "Dark Småland" is resplendent with all the esoteric and sophisticated detail you'd expect from McIntosh and her two different crews of Instruments, though it never loses touch with the rarefied and dynamic melodic sense she's developed through years of performing with heavies like Circulatory System, Elf Power, Japancakes, Kevin Ayers, of Montreal and Gnarls Barkley. As dense and layered as this album gets, it is at its core an elegantly melancholic folk-pop record sweetly at home in your heart next to Richard and Linda Thompson's most beautiful, hymnic monuments or the vestigial ghost of some ancient lullaby from your longlost childhood.
Recorded between Athens and Brooklyn over the past year with essentially two different bands, "Dark Småland" nevertheless finds a collaborative songwriterly fulcrum in the trio of McIntosh, drummer Eric Harris, and guitarist Derek Almstead, who engineered a great deal of the album's foundational tracks at his own Pixel Studios. Indigenously Athenian-seeming in its broad scope of instrumentation, the record features contributions from a host of E6 stalwarts, including Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel and Will Cullen Hart, John Fernandes and Peter Erchick, all of whom partnered with Harris in The Olivia Tremor Control. Truly, these visionaries' offerings color "Dark Småland" wonderfully, but the primary emotional impact of this record hinges fully on the edifying low-end plaint of Heather's brooding cello. Just as Charlie Mingus flipped the script in jazz and made his bass the driver of his genius sensibility, Heather constructs an unlikely and wholly rewarding pop aesthetic with her atypical primary axe. And her bucolic, imagistic lyrics work perfectly within the boundless and sonorous sonic vista she creates in her "Dark Småland"; as close as this record sometimes feels to a dark night of the soul, it leaves a listener hopeful and bright and willing to return.