NEW YORK — Swedish pop phenom and possible Stateside star-to-be Lykke Li played the second date of a U.S. minitour on Thursday night, a sold-out show at a Greenwich Village nightclub. The crowd seemed very NYU, and many of them were singing along to the songs. This was no tremendous surprise: Li's debut album, the dazzling Youth Novels, was only released in this country last week, but her various European videos have already scored more than 2-million hits on YouTube.
Li's record was produced by Björn Yttling, of Peter Björn and John, who also helps craft the songs she writes. The sound is stripped down and the music is hard — impossible, actually — to label. It's irresistibly danceable (Li is a big hip-hop fan), but it's not "dance music." It has the rhythmic punch and melodic propulsion of rock (her mother was a member of an all-girl punk band back in the '80s), but it's not strictly "rock music" either. The album also contains one of the year's most ravishing ballads — a track called "Tonight" — which makes her work all the harder to pin down. (Li's name, by the way, is pronounced "Licky-lee," and uttered as if it were one word.)
The club she played, a relatively new venue called Le Poisson Rouge, was ideal for her current show, which is very straightforward. Some 600 people were arrayed at tables and up on risers around a circular stage in the middle of the room. The high-end lighting technology seemed to reflect the state of that particular art, and the sound system was that rare thing, a model of both bone-shivering power and absolute clarity. Since Li's music includes some subtle details that might otherwise go missing, this was a perfect environment.
She has an unusual three-piece band: a keyboardist who switches off between synthesizer and piano, a guitarist who alternates between bass and nylon-string acoustic (no electric guitars, but he riffs anyway), and a drummer who can do a lot of interesting things just clacking away on the rim of his floor tom, which has a cowbell taped to its top. The group is very tight, and Li, who's only 22, takes the stage like she just bought it, whipping the air with her long blonde hair (gone is the tight little bun of the Euro videos), occasionally feeding her powerful alto through a raspy megaphone, and at one point tossing off a little solo on toy trumpet.
She gave the enthusiastic crowd pretty much what it expected off her album, including the overseas hits "I'm Good, I'm Gone" (also the first single here) and "Little Bit," as well as such standout tracks as the dreamy "Dance, Dance, Dance" (a song which isn't exactly what you might assume it to be). Every now and then she whacked a tambourine, smacked a cymbal and turned her boot heels into a very persuasive rhythm instrument. People were eating it up.
Halfway through the performance, she scanned the room and announced, "It's all right to kiss at my shows." Sweet. I doubt if anyone took her up on that, though. All eyes were, and who knows, may remain, on Lykke Li.