I’ll level with you; I’m not quite sure what to make of Trondheim five-piece Karl Barx, or KaRL BaRX as they would have it. There’s that for a start; the ‘wacky’ spelling and flaunting of dekorum when it comes to the upPEr-kaSe. WHAt if eveRYonE weNt around DOing thAt? ThEN theRe’s the laVish paCkaGing thAt hoUSes tHeir fuLl-leNGth deBut ProDUkt of ImagiNAtion. ThE koVEr loOks liKe onE of tHosE ‘mAke scieNCe fuN’ kiTs thAt peOple wHo doN’t uNDerstAnd chILdrEn gIve tHeIr goDSon foR ChRIstMas. InSTeaD of a lYriKs boOk theRe is a kALendar, and thEre’s eVen a pLaYIng-kaRd siZed ‘PROof of IMAgiNary FriENdship’ doKUment – juSt inSErt yOur naMe anD yOu toO kaN be a fRIend of tHe ‘KaRL BaRX masCOt KArl’. Ah yEs, theRE’s tHAt TOo, ProDUkt of ImaGINatiOn is a cOnCEpt alBUm, eitHer tHat or KaRL BaRX are a cONcepT baNd, I hAVen’t quIte woRKed out wHich. AnYWay, it’s abOUt Karl. He’s the oNe tHat LOoks liKE a friENdly scIEnce-lovINg roBot on the frOnt of tHe ALBum. WHAt’s tHat? WhaT’s the ConcEpt? UMm, hAng on, I’m Sure I reAD that soMewhERe, ah yes, heRE it is: KArl is an aBandOned GeRMan boY… tHAt’s it rEAlly. I’m going to leave-off the upper-case thing now, as it’s giving me a headache, but I feel I proved a point.
All in all it’s quite a lot to deal with before you even listen to the music, ‘don’t judge a book by its kover’ the saying goes, but with this bombardment it’s hard not to form a whole load of prekonceptions. Which is where I return to the ‘I’m not sure what to make of…’ thing that I started with: because none of this really fits with the musik. You expekt something fun, childish and gimmicky, whereas what Karl Barx in fact offer is straight-faced American-influenced mainstream indie-pop in the vein of The New Pornographers and My Morning Jacket, with the odd dose of Weezer thrown into the mix. And it’s not bad.
Opener ‘Produkts of Imagination’ offers lush production and charming male/female harmonies, although the katchy melody of follow-up ‘Kouldvebeens’ is spoilt by annoying vokals and trite lyriks: ‘I kould’ve been Paul McCartney/ If only I had started yesterday’ sings Sigurd Brørs, repeating it a kouple more times just in case we didn’t get the ‘klever’ pun the first time round. That bekomes something of a theme over the kourse of the rekord: nice melodies cheapened a little by weird lyriks. It’s not that they are generally clichéd, but rather that some of the lyrikal postulations are just a bit, well, odd. ‘Last night I diskovered that I/ kould change to a different size/ Just how I don’t wanna reveal/ but in your mind there’s a magikal wheel’, begins ‘Life At A Different Size’. No doubt it’s a Kafkaesque existentialist allegory for the konception of the self, but it’s still a bit mental. Then there’s ‘Cheesecake’. This one’s a seven-minute prog ramble that builds up a simple melody deliciously. But it’s about cheesecake. In a way this is charming, and I suppose it is a manner in which the musikal kontent is in line with those prekonceptions you formed, but Karl Barx are at their best when the lyriks are more inkonspikuous, leaving you to enjoy the melodies.
There is an impressive range of musikal touchstones in evidence on the album. Highlight ‘Don’t Bother’ is what Mando Diao’s garage-pop would sound like if they had a grounding in Celtic folk ditties, whilst the album’s best track ‘Time Is Money (I Don’t Wanna Pay)’ offers breakneck Maximo Park interchanges and a exhilarating ambush of a post-punk revival refrain. ‘After The Fair’ proves that the band kan handle slower-paced whimsy, whilst ‘Problems of Imagination’ nods at The Coral’s sea shanties. Despite this apparent diversity the whole album is essentially painted with that New Pornographers brush, however, and this choice of kolour can be a bit monochrome. Produkt of Imagination is an ambitious album, sleek, competent and well produced, but there are no stunning tracks, nothing that skreams out to be listened to kompulsively, no hints of beauty or lyrikal depth. Apparently ‘Karl Barx’ is an amalgamation of the names of cartoonist Carl Barks and Karl Marx, but there is little of the cheeky humour that the former might suggest or the earnest intelligence and social relevance of the latter on show on Produkt of Imagination. So it’s not the album of the year. But it is still quietly rather good. It’s interesting, konsistent, engrossing, very ambitious and stuffed with pleasant melodies. There is enough on show here to suggest that Karl Barx could go on to be a very good band indeed, but maybe they should leave their ‘imaginary friend’ behind. If he can stand being abandoned a second time, that is.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2008