Surface Sounds


Elektra, 2021

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Kaleo—the striking, charismatic Icelandic quartet that made a splash last decade with a series of singles culminating in 2016’s memorable international debut A/B—returned five long years later with Surface Sounds, an album that presents listeners with as many questions as answers. To wit:

Is this a true album or just a patchwork collection of recent recordings?

The answer isn’t clear. Due in part to the pandemic, the 11 tracks on Surface Sounds were compiled from a range of sessions from around the country and across the world; opener “Brother Run Fast” alone lists studios in Chicago, Nashville, Reykjavik, Athens, and Pittsburgh. Most of the album is co-produced by Nashville’s Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile) and Kaleo frontman/songwriter JJ Julius Son, but there’s also one co-produced by Mike Elizondo (“Break My Baby”), and album closer “Into My Mother’s Arms” is a self-produced Julius Son solo track.

Did the band’s sound evolve in the half-decade that lapsed between A/B and Surface Sounds?

Yes and no. They still veer between passionate acoustic folk-pop and thundering electric blues-rock in a manner that inevitably harks back to Led Zeppelin, without ever sounding much like them. They do push the envelope a bit here with Cobb at the boards, adding a horn section to one tune, strings to a couple, and a vocal choir to several, but the fundamentals of the Kaleo sound—which is all about depth of field and muscular dynamics creating drama—remain intact. For example, you can feel Cobb’s influence in the orchestral sweep of tunes like strings-and-choir-augmented opener “Brother Run Fast,” but at its core the song is textbook Kaleo: all whispery, simmering tension until booming drums and bass enter, and then powerful vocals over the top.

Is there anything here as instantly captivating as A/B singles “Way Down We Go” and “No Good”?

Almost but not quite. “Break My Baby”—previewed in single form months before Surface Sounds emerged—echoes “Way Down We Go” by opening with an evocative wordless chant that’s soon punctuated by big drums and distortion-heavy guitar. It’s well-constructed and packs a punch even if it doesn’t really offer anything new. And then the borderline disturbing lyric (“I want to break my baby / Hold her down / Bring her down now”) devolves at the bridge into a not-so-veiled dig at the music industry: “They’ll take you in / And spit you out / You’re only worth how much you sell.”

Are Julius Son’s vocals any easier to understand than they were on A/B?

It has to be tremendously challenging to write and sing in a language other than your native tongue. Kaleo’s first single back in 2013 (“Vor Í Vaglaskógi”) was an Icelandic-language tune, but everything since has been in English and at times Julius Son’s accent complicates matters. “Alter Ego” is a cool tune that starts out big and fast, adding a little Texas boogie chug before getting greasier and glammier, but I couldn’t have guessed what the song is about without looking at the lyric sheet; I understood about half of every other line the first time through. The same was true for “Brother Run Fast” and “My Fair Lady,” both of whose titles I had to look up on the lyric sheet, as my ears heard something entirely different.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Does it matter?

Not really. Kaleo is one of those bands that’s all about the sound: at the core of their music there’s a restraint and tension; you always feel like any Kaleo song could erupt into something dramatically larger at any moment. They exist inside that hard/soft, quiet/loud dynamic, which extends even to the vocals, where Julius Son deploys both his deep, growly natural register and a piercing falsetto; this is captivating, high-contrast music.

What are the songs about?

Scanning the lyric sheet doesn’t bring as much clarity as one might hope; there’s a lot of vague, somewhat grandiose musing and a smattering of questionable judgment. “Free The Slave” narrates a lynching before the very Caucasian Julius Son asks the audience “Won’t you free the slave in me”; it’s one of those situations where good intentions struggle to overcome a cringe-y result. Same goes for “Skinny,” a tirade against the fame machine that interpolates with a vicious fight between lovers; on close examination it appears well-intended, but on first listen it didn’t land that way.

A horn section? Seriously?

Seriously. “Hey Gringo” feels closer to a mainstream pop-rock song than just about anything Kaleo has done before, a mid-tempo number that evolves into an r&b vamp featuring harmonica and horns. The most surprising part is, it sounds good—hats off to Cobb for applying a little of his Muscle Shoals magic to this one.

Should a band that hasn’t released an album in five years be able to deliver one that doesn’t feel like it has any filler?

You might think so, but the back half of this album features a pair of mid-tempo acoustic numbers (“My Fair Lady” and “I Want More”) that amount to a pleasant diversion; there’s just not much to them. And they’re followed by one of the lesser examples of the band’s crunchy blues-rock, the tediously macho “Backbone” (“You’ve got your / Back against the wall / Say, where’s your backbone brother”).

Is Kaleo actually still a band?

It’s hard not to ask this question when presented with substantial evidence to the contrary. First and foremost is the album’s booklet, which prominently features two quotes from Julius Son talking about “my music” and thanking “everyone who contributed to Surface Sounds.” Meanwhile he is credited as writer, co-producer, and first-billed performer on every track, no other band members are pictured, and the one song here with a co-writer—drummer David Antonsson—finds the latter sharing drumming duties with a session player. Meanwhile Antonsson and bassist Daniel Kristjansson are absent from both the opening and closing tracks, guitarist Ruben Pollock is missing from the aforementioned closer, and Thorleifur Davidsson is listed as a band member but doesn’t play at all on the album.

By the time you get to the Julius Son solo track that closes the album, you can’t help but speculate about a possible case of that notorious affliction L.S.D. (Lead Singer Disease), exemplified by the moment in the fourth minute of “Alter Ego” when Pollock steps up to take a beautiful, aggressive electric solo and Julius Son keeps screaming over him. Dude: it’s not your turn.

A flash of understanding arrived when I read that the band’s name means “the voice” in Hawaiian; maybe that’s how Julius Son has always seen Kaleo—as simply a platform for his voice. Too bad then, because the impact the group’s music achieves is derived at least as much from the band’s powerhouse playing as from Julius Son’s considerable vocal talent, and Kaleo’s most apparent weakness is his lyrics.

Surface Sounds is a solid, at times impressive album from a talented band with a distinctive and compelling sound. You know a Kaleo song when you hear one, and that’s a good thing. The big question they still have to face is an existential one: who is Kaleo?

Rating: B

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