Under Byen’s smoldering performance at Tonic on the opening night of the CMJ Music Marathon was executed with an assured perfection that felt alien. But the swirling sounds conjured up by this seven-piece ensemble was actually more exotic than extra-terrestrial, as Under Byen actually hail from Denmark. And despite the proliferation of bands from the region dealing in the currency of retro-chic they couldn’t be less interested in garage rock or any other format of yesteryear.
The group is fronted by Henriette Bennenvalot, who with all apologies to Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, is the most striking chanteuse to cross the Atlantic pond since Nico (and a markedly better singer than Warhol’s muse). Bennenvalot has a piercing pixie-ish timbre to her voice that will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Bjork. But her croon is more sensuous and less generally weird. And live it achieves even more dynamic breathy textures than on the group’s terrific 2002 release, Det er Mig der Holder Traeerne Sammen (translated “It’s Me Who Keeps the Trees Together”). She could be singing Dutch poetry or the proverbial phone book, but Bennenvalot’s voice has a way of sounding as though it where whispered into an individual attentive ear at a time.
The sound of the band is no less revelatory. Throw out those bulky guitars, along with preconceptions of how instruments should behave. Sara Saxilo’s bass is perhaps the least showy of the six instruments utilized on stage, and the most important. Saxilo doesn’t so much create a bed or any of the other cliched foundation metaphors for the rest of the band, but rather drops spare notes here and there, like hooks on a wall. A pair of percussionists — Anders Stochholm (who also plays keys) and Morten Larsen — splash out quiet, rumbling rhythms, with clever key vamps, hooks and washes added by Katrine Stochholm and Thorbjorn Krogshede. Strings accentuate the melodies, with violinst Nils Grondahl and cellist Myrtha Wolf.
With so many cooks in the kitchen, the opportunity for clutter is great, but the seven instrumentalists work together like wires on a whisk. A language barrier prevents any sort of verisimilitude (at least for most of those in attendance) with the lyrics, but the presentation — vocally and musically — suggests the sort of smoky segues found at dusk and dawn, with some carefully placed glimmers of pop sunshine on either end.