French/Finnish duo The Dø (pronounced “The Dough”) released a Number 1 album in France in 2008 with their debut, A Mouthful. At home, they’re a major act, packing stadiums and thrilling the festival circuit. Now, their eclectic and quirky sophomore release, Both Ways Open Jaws, is getting a proper UK release seven months after its first appearance.
Front woman Olivia Merilahti and multi-instrumentalist Dan Levy walk a fine line here, but it’s clear that they’re performing without a net. Just above Levy’s slightly off, slanted, rose-coloured backdrop, Merilahti’s vocals and lyrics (sung in English with an enchanting but understated accent) provide an emotional and intellectual support that makes The Dø that rarest of groups: challenging, surprising, and compulsively listenable.
Throughout Both Ways Open Jaws, Levy and Merilahti present the listener with a constantly shifting surface on which to roam. The sonic layers here are impressive and expansive, but never dense. The glitch beat that segues album opener Dust It Off from cutesy pop to something more menacing is a prime example of what the group is capable of, and it establishes The Dø’s sonic intentions from the start. Yes, we are in for a surprising, emotional, and occasionally difficult journey, but not one devoid of fun.
And the journey is rife with twists and turns, detours and diversions to keep even the most studious and cynical listener entertained. The too sweet, twee singsong refrain (“Why don’t you let me down?”) on Too Insistent; the foot-stomping rhythm accompaniment to Bohemian Dances, which leads into looped whooping; the coffeehouse acoustic haze of Smash Them All (Night Visitors). There are moments here that inspire smiles, just as others confound on first listen.
Then there’s the unexpected dance-floor synth squall of B.W.O.J., and the faux Trinidadian silliness of the seeming Rainbow Arabia outtake Slippery Slope. These feel like missteps, certainly; they stick in the ear, upsetting the expected course of things, demonstrating that even surprises become routine when they’re expected, and as things progress, we must tread the fringe closely. Merilahti carves a likable persona and casts a larger-than-life shadow on the whole album, never more so than when she croons over the Regina Spektor-like off-kilter burlesque piano of The Calendar, sounding at once brash and vulnerable atop its plinking and plunking woozy waltz as strings provide lilting accents.
And by the time the album closes with the chamber-pop fragility of Mood Mermaids, you’ve come to trust The Dø; they’re eclectic, sure, but they’re not in it simply to surprise or upset you. There’s real intention behind each foray into new territory, and while genre-pigeonholing is not an option (and easy comparisons to Björk need not apply), Both Ways Open Jaws is an album that is best when taken as a whole and wholly intriguing trip into that most treacherous and elusive of terrains: the happy marriage of eccentricity and pop song craft.