Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Scandinavian Pop

I’ve loved all things Scandinavian since I first heard ABBA’s “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” from the comfort of my crib (not in the MTV sense) when I was about three years old, and I’m open to the criticism that my musical taste hasn’t become much more sophisticated since then. “The Name Of The Game” was number one on the day I was born. Perhaps I was a viking in a previous life. It does seem though, that the pop music from that part of Europe is – unlike my efforts to account for my love of Scandinavian pop of all stripes - effortlessly uncomplicated. And so whistleable! Is it a response to the lack of daylight up there? Recently we have seen a wave of new Scandinavian pop groups release a body of amazingly good pop music. In the immediate wake of terrific albums by Annie, The Knife and Robyn, a glut of brilliant Nordic pop has emerged, much of it synthpop. Northern Europe has a long tradition in this regard, think of ABBA’s “The Visitors” as the jump off point. Giving the synths a swerve meanwhile, are The Concretes and Peter, Bjorn and John – the latter gave the world the bothersome or brilliant (depending on your fancy) “Young Folks”. Whatever instruments they employ, or whether they bother to learn an instrument at all (see Pay TV below), from Bergen to Stockholm, from Reykjavik to Silkeborg, the mood is vibrant, colourful, breezy pop. Amen to that.

Back in the 1990s of course, there was “Scando-pop”. This was a sort of scene-but-not-really based loosely around the Tambourine studios in Malmo. With producer Tore Johansson at the helm, The Cardigan’s best records were created here, alongside a series of brilliant (although overlooked on these shores) releases by Eggstone. The sound was literally wooden; the antique-pine acoustics of the studio, ancient instruments and brittle sounding drums led to a beautiful, icy sound. The Cardigan’s “Life” LP is a great example of this. It could hardly have been more twee if you’d stuck a slide in its hair and plopped a lollipop in its mouth. These people had obviously spent some time in the company of the back catalogue of “él records”. Operating elsewhere, and missing out on the Tore magic, there were meat ‘n’ potatoes rockers Kent, the practically bipolar Wannadies and Whale, the latter posessing it must be said a rather knockabout sense of humour. Anyone who remembers Whale’s “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” or “Young Dumb ‘N’ Full Of Cum” will attest to the rather irritating “wackiness” of the duo. If they’d recorded a single called “Look! My Dog Is Wearing The Sunglasses! Hoho!”, you wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. Iceland’s Emiliana Torrini tried and failed to have hits here, although she did co-write Kylie’s hit “Slow”. Both of her albums are well worth a listen, and “Unemployed In Summertime” is one of the great lost singles of the 1990s. The rather more abstruse Stina Nordenstam could and perhaps should have had proper hits here, but remains a cult figure.

Now however, Scandinavian pop doesn’t sound so exotic, it doesn’t sound like it’s being produced in some outpost. Much of the most vital pop music of the past five years has been indebted to the likes of Royksopp and The Knife. Annie’s brilliant 2005 single “Heartbeat” was produced by the former, while The Knife used their royalties from the Sony advert which used Jose Gonzalez’s cover of “Heartbeats” to set up a record label. The UK’s most prolifically brilliant producers and songwriters, Richard X and Xenomania, have obviously been paying attention. Meanwhile Denmark’s Alphabeat are spearheading the so-called Wonky Pop movement, bringing bright brash pop to the sort of grimy sweaty clubs where you imagine a lot of trilbies get handed in to the cloak room. They appear to be going through a critical backlash of sorts at the moment, their album took a bit of a drubbing in the music press, but even dogs in the street know that “Fascination” is one of the best singles of the year so far. In 2008, our Northern European cousins are at the heart of pop.

As some of our readers will know, Lykke Li’s “Youth Novels” is one of the better LP releases of this year so far. Its pared-back sound has made it a hit on alternative radio, on Radio 2 and at festivals throughout Europe. Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John produced it, and the likes of “I’m Good, I’m Gone” , “Little Bit” and “Handing High” are lovely enough that you probably wouldn’t actually mind them reaching “Young Folks”-level omnipresence. Lykke Li is one of the guests on compatriot Kleerup’s new self-titled album. He collaborated with Robyn on “With Every Heartbeat” – possibly the greatest single of 2007. Elsewhere half-sisters Neneh Cherry and Titiyo guest.
The album has already been a top 10 hit in his homeland. Swedish pop is in a particular healthy state at the moment. Even its “melodifestivalen” (the route by which you may become their entry for the Eurovision song contest) displays brilliant imaginative pop. Recent participants Pay TV’s current single “Fashion Report” is incredible, see its disturbing but compelling video here. It’s part “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, part “I’d Rather Jack”. With a dollop of KLF style black-humour on top. If you like this you’ll like Bodies Without Organs – formed by ex members of Army Of Lovers, very camp but possibly too clever for their own good on occasion. But what do you expect from a group who name themselves after a concept from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari? For those of you who miss The Knife (currently on hiatus), Zeigeist’s LP “The Jade Motel” is a like a slightly more cheerful, younger sister to “Silent Shout”.

Most exciting of all though is the expected arrival (in October) of Annie’s new album “Don’t Stop”. A megamix of tracks from the album has been on a tour of the internet recently and it sounds completely brilliant. Her extraordinary debut set, “Anniemal”, stalled despite being one of the very best pop albums of the last 10 years. Hopefully this time proper fame will beckon, and to this end she has worked with pop-production gods of our time, Xenomania (as well as her usual collaborators Richard X and Timo Kaukolampi). Last time out, fellow Bergen dwellers Royksopp helped out, this time it’s fellow Bergen dweller Fredrick from Datarock who puts in an appearance (on the energetic “Misery”). Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand contributes guitar to “Loco” and “My Love Is Better” (Girls Aloud also contributed to the latter, but record company politics have seen to it that their vocals have been removed). If what’s been leaked on the internet so far is anything to go by, “Don’t Stop” will be the best pop LP of 2008.

Annie “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me”

Pay TV “Fashion Report”

Emiliana Torrini “Unemployed In Summertime”

Lykke Li “I’m Good I’m Gone”

Alphabeat “Fascination”

Annie “Don’t Stop (Megamix)”