Peter von Poehl’s second album, May Day, is a superbly crafted, deftly executed look at the lighter side of pop musicianship, by turns quiet and introspective, and unexpectedly funky. The album does not relent in its loveliness with von Poehl’s often timid, almost reluctant tenor at the helm, surrounded by an eddying cavalcade of lush orchestration and acoustic machinations.
Von Poehl – Swedish born, but nomadic by definition – created something intensely personal in his debut, Going To Where The Tea Trees Are. And while May Day continues in the same musical vein, it also turns in von Poehl’s navel-gazing card, opting instead for an almost jubilant outward focus (compare this, perhaps, to the difference between Nick Drake‘s Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter).
The music here seems almost custom-made as – and almost certainly destined to become – the soundtrack to some fantastic indie romantic film. It’s got the kind of soul that today’s increasingly iPod-driven listener would have a hard time not finding appealing.
For instance, the album opener 28 Paradise matches perfectly the feeling of that first kiss in the pouring rain, when a film’s awkward male protagonist finally requites his love for the seemingly unapproachable, cringingly artistic, free-spirited girl who knits scarves and screen-prints her own t-shirts.
This is, of course, a generalisation, and not intended to undermine May Day’s subtle beauty. Musically, comparisons can be made to such diverse acts as Kings Of Convenience and Rogue Wave. And in its distinctly pop sound – again focusing primarily on von Poehl’s immediately approachable, achingly earnest tenor voice – is, in this case, one of the album’s more endearing aspects.
Horns back a lot of the action (Parliament), and the more tender moments (Lost In Space) are encased in chamber-pop strings, rendering an instant feel of loving familiarity, and causing in the romance-prone listener a distinct urge to stare longingly into a lover’s eyes. Electric guitars are rare in von Poehl’s universe, but when they’re present (as in the opening measures of Forgotten Garden) they’re used as sparse atmospherics – really as counterpoints to the fragile soundscape of woodwinds and brushed drums around them.
The standout track here is the rainy and contemplative May Day, whose narrative centres around the emotional aftermath of a riot in the streets of von Poehl’s Berlin neighbourhood. Von Poehl sings, “The act of creation changes skin. It should be time to buckle up, time to break up.” But the refrain comes back to a sense of hope in the chaos: “It is the first of May, and for once I feel quite okay.” The acoustic guitar and piano that open the song take on a surprisingly soulful cast when matched with the thumping bass, weeping strings, and jarring harmonica solo that eventually accompany them.
May Day is a perfect backdrop for a rainy day or a first date. And while there’s not much to set von Poehl’s brand of songwriting apart from any of the other heart-on-sleeve balladeers cluttering the Internet today, the album still offers a lush, and often beautiful, look at popular song craft. Von Poehl obviously has a knack for pairing words with music and engendering genuine emotional reactions from even the most casual of listeners and, in that respect, May Day is well nigh unmatched by any album of its kind in recent memory.