The Rhino box set of One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found elbowed its way into my music collection last year, and has never left. At three CDs, it features unearthed gems from Cathy Saint, the Rev-Lons, the Honeys, and tons of other '60s-era girl bands I had never heard of. So while my inner indie kid told me to pay some attention to the new Arcade Fire or Ted Leo burning a hole through my iPod, I couldn't pry myself away from Dawn's "I'm Afraid They're All Talking About Me." I had stumbled down a rabbit hole of '60s girl pop and couldn't bear to listen to anything that didn't feature all-female harmonies and a Phil Spector-ish Wall of Sound. That is, until I discovered El Perro del Mar.
While the moniker El Perro del Mar is Spanish, Sarah Assbring (get your giggles out now, 'cuz I have to write her name about a dozen more times in this article), the one-woman band behind El Perro del Mar, is Swedish. The El Perro name comes from a vacation during which Assbring saw a dog on the beach, which for some reason motivated her to return to Sweden in order to resurrect the ghosts of girl groups past. The story is a bit odd, but the result of all this is her self-titled debut (licensed in the States via Seattle label The Control Group), which manages to bridge the gap between modern vocal-based pop music and the girl groups' gilded age.
Assbring calls Gothenburg home, a locale known on the musical map for its contributions to death metal—and even scarier than that, as the home of Ace of Base. Along with fellow Gothenburger Jens Lekman, Assbring unearths a stark, melancholic pop style that is as vintage as it is shiny and new. The songs of El Perro del Mar shimmer with the innocence of the classic girl-group era, complete with the stylish backdrop of instruments, grand arrangements, and Assbring's rich, despondent voice.
Her album begins with the ethereal "Candy," the record's lone optimistic high-note, which, despite its name, never develops into empty saccharine pop music. After that, it's all downhill for Assbring. The record adopts a pattern of quick plunges into deep despair, surrounded by a light symphony of eerie timpani booms, the death rattle of a tambourine, and some doomed hand claps to wrap it all together. Despite the permanent rain cloud that haunts Assbring (okay, that name is still funny) wherever she may go, it never seems to bring her down. This is her depression, and while she might be sharing, she's not projecting a thing. El Perro del Mar, much like the early girl group singers who lived under the thumbs of male record producers, brings a little sadness to every song.