With Magic Chairs, Efterklang pieces together many of the most successful elements from the indie and alternative music of the last decade (brightly orchestrated numbers, alternating guy/girl vocals, light electronic flourishes), resulting in a 40-minute set that’s uniformly pleasant, if only occasionally splendid. That’s not for lack of trying: The Danish indie troupe has a keen sense of how to build and pace a pop song, with most of the tracks here beginning in quietude before stretching out into more grandiose territory. Both the opening “Modern Drift” and closing “Natural Tune” find the band nailing that formula: The former begins in gentle piano figures, the latter with delicate acoustics, but in both cases it’s the intervention of a stomping, cavernous drumbeat that signals their ascension to orchestral pop altitude. That compositional tact, not to mention singer Casper Clausen’s deep, expressive singing, recalls the National’s Boxer, but whereas those songs are all sepia-toned and autumnal, Efterklang’s arrangements are somewhat lighter and more optimistic.
The album may be bookended by its two best tracks, but the material in between is not exactly less consistent. True, Efterklang rarely achieves those moments of moody pop majesty for which they are so clearly aiming. But their shortcomings have less to do with composition than with character, their charming fusion of ‘00s indie conventions never sounding quite like their own. The way that twinkling flutes and huge horns play off each other on “Scandinavian Love” doesn’t just sound like Sufjan Stevens—it sounds a lot like Sufjan Stevens. Familiarity turns out to be a frequent stumbling block: Clausen does an uncanny job channeling Chris Martin on the chorus to “Alike,” and echoes of Arcade Fire’s baroque pop and Vampire Weekend’s polyrhythmic play can be heard throughout. Sometimes the resulting synthesis sounds suspiciously like those bands slicked up for the mainstream. More often it plays as what it is: smart, likeable pop music, though the kind that demonstrates its intelligence with clever juxtapositions rather than by suggesting genuinely new directions.
Still, it’s not as though any track is going to be ruined by its similarity to something else you’ve already heard; the songwriting here is too strong for that, especially on gorgeous late-coming standouts like “The Soft Bleating” and “Mirror. Mirror.” The price of all that borrowing, though, is that the band seems to have stunted its own sonic development. Because individual tracks sound so indebted to their particular influences, the transitions between them can be rough, giving Magic Chairs the feel of a mixtape or a covers set. It’s a little too easy to hear the band in Arcade Fire mode here and Coldplay mode there, which raises the uncomfortable question of what, exactly, Efterklang sounds like in Efterklang mode. That’s not a question that Magic Chairs resolves, but it ends up being quite a lot of fun just listening to them play around with some possible answers.