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Not too many years ago, American kids could waltz into the Swedish National Film Institute in Stockholm and stumble out with more Ingmar Bergman posters and PR material on the Swedish filmmaker than they could carry in their rucksacks—no charge. It was a nice consolation considering Stockholm’s $7 pints of beer. Sweden’s culture ministers must have foreseen a return of Swedish pop music to world dominance and feared it would obscure the country’s weightier cultural contributions.
Enter the photogenic Cardigans, the most recent hit makers to score in the U.S., following trails blazed in the disco age by ABBA. Swedish music, at least in its export variety, nails the trademarks of a genre; originality is not at a premium. The European obsession with trendy details combines with technical proficiency to effect some complex hybridization.
The first thing that’s apparent about Sweden’s latest musical confection is its lightness. Even when it’s contemplative, it floats by pleasantly on a current of positivity, not necessarily interested in making an impression of any kind. It surely isn’t The Seventh Seal.
On the Cardigan’s sweater tails, the independent Swedish label North of No South is doing its part to mount its own North American invasion. NONS’ previous offerings, such as Komeda’s The Genius of Komeda (Minty Fresh) last year, failed to demonstrate why work visas should be issued at all. This year, however, the Swedes are picking up the slack. Komeda’s new melancholic What Makes It Go? (Minty Fresh), for example, is more rewarding than its forebear, like an earthbound Stereolab recalling Nico and Kraftwerk.
The latest releases by NONS are big news as well, if only as international communiques of good vibes. Ray Wonder, from Umea in the north of Sweden, weigh in with Good Music, which finds the quartet moving on from the barren valleys of lo-fi indie (their first album, Hurray, drew comparisons with Pavement) to the groovier high ground of the ’60s beat club. Ray Wonder’s members formed the band while playing different instruments in different pop bands in their town, and they give the impression that they’re still in awe of music-making itself—they’re not at all jaded. They do their silly songs 10 ways, which often means with the horn, string, and organ accompaniment that’s coming back into style in the popular classics-conscious underground. Singer and guitarist Henrik Andersson finds himself in cartoonlike situations: playing violin at a ball, dancing the cha-cha, impersonating a Count of Darkness locked in a castle, and, in “Hang Me High,” preferring death to joining the village enforcers. “What I’ll Do” checks us into a swinging ’20s hotel, where Andersson claims he “might blow a high-rise up,” he’s so in love. The totally goofy “Totally Crazy Dude” translates better than one might expect. It’s about being the guy who stays home from a picnic, to “burn the invitation, and prefer that misery.”
Occasionally, Wonder sound dead-on like San Franciscans the Mommyheads, similarly earnest and witty. While never grave, Ray Wonder, like a young Fab Four, wish something deeper would take hold to replace that confounding lightheadedness of youth. It happens momentarily on “Darta,” where Henrik Andersson’s dynamic vocal performance is surprisingly spine-tingling, though he can only tell us that he’s “waiting for the colors.” The cleverly played Good Music is a lively, charmingly absurd record, occupying an odd little place in the neo-retro universe.
The heavenly jazzy potion cooked up on Cloudberry Jam’s Providing the Atmosphere puts the band in the company of the Cardigans, Everything but the Girl, Ivy, and the Style Council. This outfit uses percussion, organ, strings, and horns to offset the low rich purr of vocalist Jennie Medin tastefully and flawlessly. Influenced by ’70s sounds, vintage soul, and easy-listening classics, Cloudberry is in danger of redeeming the too-smooth acid-jazz tag. The gooey soul of “Nothing to Declare,” and the uptempo “Another Moment Follows,” go down lightly, like diet soft drinks. “Some Things Are Better Left to Be” has personality and beat to spare. But while Cloudberry is clearly adept at nailing all the right points of style, there’s something terribly unremarkable about Providing the Atmosphere; the air’s quite thin in here. Pop music this nonessential doesn’t stick to anything and might easily float away, unnoticed.
Then there’s the trendy DayBehavior, a techno-y group that’s joined the current onslaught of chanteuses with computer geeks and their obvious soundtrack samples. Their album :Adored has adopted the conventions of the young genre (which used to consist solely of St. Etienne), and it’s done so unexceptionally. Its opening track, “Carouse,” has a characterless beat, bass line, vocal line, and mix. This group sounds like the kind of thing you hear in the restroom of a nondescript, third-rate restaurant in Europe, except less interesting because the voices in the restroom aren’t singing something so ridiculous over and over again as “I’m from the U.S.A., I’m from the U.S.A.” It’s not emotional or edgy like, say, Portishead, or even catchy. DayBehavior’s just a flat, imitation without much to call its own.