Making a dent in a supergenre like rock, which has been hacked away at from all directions for decades, is a challenge for new groups looking to distinguish themselves. With their debut album, Birthday (out Feb. 22), four-piece band Pom Poko blast out their speedy and boisterous sound with a contagious confidence. Hailing from Oslo, Norway, Pom Poko have adopted their namesake from the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, a lighthearted tale of the Japanese tanuki of folklore. And like any Ghibli film, there’s childlike wonder in Pom Poko’s sound, and not without losing its sharpness.
While lead singer Ragnhild stamps a certain bubble-gum vibe into Birthday with her vocal mix of Björk’s crooning and Die Antwoord’s Yolandi Visser’s trills and yelping, the instrumentation stays around indie and hard rock, with a lot packed in. Its tempo is effortlessly white knuckle on tracks like “Theme #1” and “My Blood”, while a track like “Crazy Energy Night” uses punky distorted guitars to stab in and out of tempo—just listen to the blistering bridge! “Blue”, with its lovely steel drum chorus and dipping bass groove shifts in and out of high gear throughout; lamenting love song “Honey” sinks down into sticky sweetness; melody and rhythm twirl around each other in math-rock interplay on “Milk Trust”. There’s so much to say and unpack about each of the twelve tracks, especially considering they often transition/retransition within themselves, like the noise rock blitzkrieg “If U Want Me 2 Stay” unraveling into a lullaby before winding back into a cyberpunk tornado. With the exception of the titular track, “Birthday” (which is purposely shrill and obnoxious), I found that each track excited and often pleasantly surprised me.
Lyrically, there’s a consistent grrrl-power snarl running through Birthday, with a warm kind of aggression that never takes itself too seriously: “If you don’t come back to me / I’ll go undercover and infiltrate your town and the bars I know you go to.” Birthday’s humor comes from its strangeness and off-kilter lyrics, like a sassier tone of They Might Be Giants or The Mountain Goats, but not without genuine moments of artistic introspection such as on “My Work is Full of Art” and closer “Peachy”. Perhaps the fresh voice is a result of cultural translation—either way the result is more charming than awkward.
Pom Poko’s debut album is fun and frenetic, unpredictable and full of character. It keeps its tone light and its instrumentation heavy, knowing when to ease off the throttle just enough to build into the next burst of energy. For their first birthday, Pom Poko come out shamelessly hogging all the attention with show-stealing flair, pushing their invention and losing just enough control without losing an ounce of catchiness. Standout tracks are “My Blood”, “Blue”, and “Crazy Energy Night”.
review by Matthew Wardell