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Sadness has never sounded so sweet

With a sound that harks back to the 1960s girl groups of the Motown era, Sarah Assbring spins a melodic wed of harmony and sorrow that's impossible to resist. By Paul Olund
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Decked in mod fashion and propped by her signature baby-doll warble, El Perro del Mar convincingly harks back to that soulful era of yore. The wistful melodies are so reminiscent of those 1960s Motown giants — The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Temptations — that it’s easy to imagine singer Sarah Assbring belting out her angelic croon under the direction of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Berry Gordy.

It may not be Hitsville, but in her hometown studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, the solo songstress churns out a solid hit list of her own, somberly projecting her unique variation on the doo-wop tradition.

Founded in 2003 as a casual Internet artist, Assbring’s El Perro del Mar (roughly translated “Dog of the Sea”) brings her longtime solo project to major-debut fruition with her latest, “Self Titled,” a 10-song opus from Euro indie label, Memphis Industries (she recently inked a multi-record deal with Licking Fingers).

On it she gravely laments, shedding thoughts on depression, loneliness and unhappiness. Even the disc’s most upbeat tracks drip with heartsick gloom. Leave it to Assbring to turn a song titled “Candy,” into a melancholy popper: “Oh, I think it’s so hard trying to get around what they want me to be / I’m just about done trying to care about everyone else except me.”

With her syrupy Swedish drawl, Assbring’s lilting voice flits perfectly over the track’s acoustic guitar, tambourine smacks and estrogen-thick vocal backups — sadness never sounded so sweet.

A soul-crushing breakup? The death of a loved one? On “Self Titled” Assbring never explicitly explains what tragedy has befallen her, but from track to track she readily expounds her pain in aching detail. Nowhere is her isolation more visceral than on “People”: “I can’t understand people / I guess that’s alright, because they can’t understand me.”

Sweden’s been ciphering off American musical themes for years, successfully importing its brand of Euro-Americana (ABBA, Ace of Base, Kent and Millencolin) — El Perro del Mar’s no exception. On “Self Titled” Assbring takes the best of 1960s top 40 pop, making her own improvements to create a Motown-rock hybrid that Phil Spector would happily groove to.

Assbring extrapolates: “El Perro del Mar simply is the easiest and most direct way for me to say and do the things I cannot do in real life. To live inside the music, to close the door on the outside world — if just for three minutes or basically just the length of a standard pop song — is what makes the hours of the day worth while.”

Most original is “Dog,” a fluid mixture of high-pitched vocals, synthesizer and guitar. One moment it feels like a contemporary pop song, the next, a track off oldies rock radio. She chants: “All the feelings you have for me, just like for a dog.” So beautiful is Assbring’s soprano, the song plays like a love song rather than one of post-relationship grief.

After trudging through this collection of heavy-hearted tracks, it comes as no surprise that much of Assbring’s anguish may be inborn. She writes alone, sings alone, records alone and produces alone. In a recent interview she admitted that she’d never considered playing with a band, and probably never would.

At times on “Self Titled,” Assbring seems to be searching for a reprieve from her lone wolf mentality. On “This Loneliness” she sings: “This loneliness, ain’t pretty no more / when you come, bring the sun.” And on “It’s All Good”, which offers another discernibly upbeat sentiment: “It’s all good / take a new road and never look back.”

Despite her unhappiness, on “Self Titled” Assbring makes it clear that it’s OK to indulge in the doldrums — who knew being sad could be so much fun?