Smalltown Supersound is a superb niche label that sustains a coherent sense of purpose, whether it be through mainstream pop releases (Annie), modern composition (Lars Horntveth) or relentless electronica (Lindstrom). A significant part of the label’s identity comes from Norway’s Kim Hiorthoy, who not only records and releases music but is also responsible for much of the label’s smart and imaginative graphic design.
Drivan (meaning ‘drift’) is Hiorthoy’s latest, typically idiosyncratic, musical project. The group is also an international collaboration, featuring Lisa Ostberg and Louise Peterhoff from Sweden as well as Finland’s Kristiina Viiala.
It would not be entirely inaccurate to describe Drivan as an electronic pop group, but their sound is some distance from the insistent pulse of club music, or the hi-tech, unpredictable world of electronica. Hiorthoy seems to be aiming for a skeletal simplicity here, along with a playful, childlike whimsy. The quiet, almost whispered female vocals convey a sense of both awe and wonder, and a delicate vulnerability. This consistent sensation overcomes any language barrier and enables the music to sound human in spite of its slightly icy exterior.
The music is occasionally reminiscent of St. Etienne or Stereolab, but it’s never quite as melodic as the former and rarely as self-consciously arty as the latter. Instead, it occupies some curious intersection between art-pop and electronic experimentation. It’s also defiantly low-key and lo-fi – it often sounds like the music is being played on a collection of homemade instruments. Usually, there is plenty of space and no musical element is ever intrusive or dramatic. Musically, this might actually be closest to the strange fairytale worlds of Cocorosie but without all the potentially alienating grandeur or theatricality. All feelings and observations here seem to be implicit and understated.
There are moments when Drivan seem to veer close to conventional categorisation. The majestic Det Gor Ingenting has some of the characteristics of house music, but it sustains a peculiar sense of calm in spite of its propulsive, repetitive rhythm. Shamshalam, Shimishilim seems built over an almost hip-hop beat but the music is again mysterious and elemental, rather than edgy and aggressive. There is almost no assertion of personality or charisma here; Drivan’s sound world is uniquely dry and occasionally listless.
For a while, this precarious balance of whimsy and detachment is novel and intriguing, particularly when the influence of Scandinavian folk music begins to break through. The sheer elusive and warped weirdness of album closer Sonderslagna Mobler is a particular highlight. However, the group’s approach also risks becoming frustrating. The emphasis on simplicity sometimes precludes any sense of progression or development in the songs. Allt Man Viil is a waltz with two repeating chords, but what is layered above them is more meandering than engaging. As such, it can be difficult to detect a heart or soul in Drivan’s miniature cycles.