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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Peter Bjorn and John

April 22, 2009

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Much of the fervor has died down around Peter Bjorn and John since they last played Milwaukee a couple of years ago, at the height of "Young Folks'" ubiquity, though it seems the band prefers it that way. Recognizing the impossibility of maintaining their appeal as a small Swedish indie-pop outfit while sharing stages with Kanye West, the band has attempted to shake fair-weather fans and cement life-term ones by releasing last year a below-the-radar digital- and vinyl-only record Seaside Rock, and then this year the deliberately obtuse Living Thing, countering the sugar rush of their breakthrough album Writer's Block with two strict, carb-free follow-ups.

They overcompensated, of course. Living Thing in particular is a miserable slog of a record, at times almost masochistically un-catchy. Its best moments conjure the terse, claustrophobic grooves with which Bjorn Yttling colored Lykki Li's debut album, but most of Living Thing's songs scream for more distinguished choruses, while the ones unfortunate enough to get them, like the inane "Lay It Down," turned out so gaudy they make Weezer's last album seem understated.

So is it career suicide to release a record so-let's face it-flagrantly bad? Well, not if you bring it live, and Peter Bjorn and John brings it live, with a muscular live show and gorgeous light displays that translated even some of Living Thing's most muddled numbers into showstoppers. Even the cloying "Lay It Down" got a loud and mean makeover, while the brainy funk of the already-pretty-sharp "Nothing to Worry About" rumbled extra hard.

The new material sometimes felt like a formality, since much of the set was reserved for Writer's Block favorites. And if the band stretched winners like "Objects of My Affection," "Up Against the Wall" and "Young Folks" a bit thin toward the close, the audience didn't seem to mind much. They were just happy to get reacquainted with a bunch of great tunes they hadn't heard regularly for quite a while, songs that sound that much better for the absence.

Photo by CJ Foeckler