The Children of ABBA

01/31/2007 12:00 AM |

Scandinavian countries have always proven a reliable source of readymade pop and, in a vein that has nothing whatsoever to do with the following paragraphs, death metal. But Swedish songwriters finding success on American indie labels are becoming more and more common. Recent upstarts like Jens Lekman, Jose Gonzales, and Love Is All have accumulated plenty of fans outside their homeland, and all are pretty talented in their own right. The latest pair of noteworthy bands with new releases consists of a mellow little trio, Peter Bjorn and John, whose new record has been floating around the Internet for several months, and the equally plaintive Loney, Dear, who have somehow kept a lower profile despite the release being handled by indie label kingpin Sub Pop. Why one group would turn a few more heads than the other is inconsequential; what’s so curious is how the American underground has unequivocally embraced just about every Swedish indie pop act that’s recently made its way across the Atlantic.

That an “import” tag makes a record instantly more alluring is hard to deny. How many more terribly mediocre British bands will we embrace before we realize that an NME cover is totally meaningless? Who knows. But the example of the English is still important: what we see in Britain is a slightly skewed approximation of our own pop music culture. Their rockers speak the same language and wear similar clothes, but they have funny slang like “fags” and “innit.” What we see in Sweden, on the other hand, hinges on one important fact: most Americans know very, very little about Sweden. Scandinavian countries are usually lumped together into one geographical stereotype, wherein everyone is seen as freezing their asses off on those springy, one-piece Ikea chairs and where every vowel in every word has an umlaut. Most of the Swedish music that reaches us is still sung in English, but there’s no offbeat slang to distract us from what the singers are actually singing. Better yet, they have no fawning music magazines for sale at the Virgin Megastore.

We approach Swedish songwriters differently than British ones partly because — via movies, literature, and everything else that comes from sharing a national language — we tend to know a bit too much about the Brits to be totally objective. For example, you could have ogled Lily Allen’s nipple in online tabloids long before the end of 2006, yet her debut album was only released stateside at the end of last month. But a similarly buzzed-about act like Stockholm’s Peter Bjorn and John remains fairly mysterious, no matter how many music blogs spent the latter months of last year pumping their new single. Early returns could only cling to the fact that PB&J is a trio from Sweden whose name makes a funny acronym.

Though their new album, Writer’s Block hadn’t yet reached the States, aforementioned single ‘Young Folks’ started making the rounds on mp3 blogs a couple months after it came out in Sweden last May. The song’s deserving of every word of praise it got — it feels honest, it’s catchy, and it has loads of auxiliary percussion. Moreover, it exemplifies the no-frills approach listeners have come to expect from something clearly stamped as a Swedish import. It’s stripped down to the barest essentials: the lyrics are a straightforward conversation about the start of a relationship, and the instrumentation is minimized right down to the whistling of the hook. The chorus, too, is playfully sloppy: “We don’t care about the young folks/talkin’ bout the young style/and we don’t care about the old folks/talkin’ bout the old style.” In fact, most of Writer’s Block consists of short, verse-chorus-verse songs, usually no more than three or four chords — clean and simple, often Cure-like tunes written by three skilled friends modest enough to bill themselves by their first names.

All this simplicity goes back to the whole nipple issue — in both personality and straight-up songwriting, a band like Peter Bjorn and John is, for lack of a better word, pretty plain. In fact, they’re so nondescript that we can even start to imagine their country as having a more simplistic, democratic model of a music business, even if that’s not exactly how it is. Incidentally, we hold American indie labels up to the same unrealistic ideals. We see them as bringing us the most authentic, earnest musicians that exist while granting us a means to latch onto someone we consider “obscure.” So it’s not at all surprising that Sub Pop is banking on Loney, Dear, the home recording project of Emil Svanängen. Loney, Dear’s approach is based on maximizing the output of his bedroom mic: similar to Sufjan Stevens, he gets a surprisingly lush sound from a modest home studio and exploits it by recording and releasing as many songs as he possibly can.

Like PB&J, Svanängen’s songs are fairly direct. ‘I Am John’ is a pretty good model: it follows one short, cyclical melody through three and half minutes of buildup, as Svanängen’s acoustic guitar and vocals are feathered with keyboards, clarinets, bells, and backing vocals. Eventually, he slips into a sort of Bee Gees falsetto as the song comes to a ringing climax. Most of the tracks follow a similar trajectory, though as with any singer-songwriter fare, some are more remarkable than others. But at a slim half-hour, the album makes for a pleasant bout of cleverly orchestrated introspection from start to finish.

That Loney, Dear and PB&J hail from Sweden is obviously of little consequence to the quality of their new records. But the way they come to us with so little fanfare serves to emphasize how well their music stands up on its own. There’s still buzz, but it tends to regard the music instead of trivia about the people behind it. An album hand-delivered by the British or American music press will go through the inevitable, often deadly cycle of hype and backlash, leaving little time to pick apart whether the band’s really any good in the first place. And yes, we’ll probably see this cycle play out more with Swedish bands if we continue writing about them so damn much. But at least for the time being, we can sit back and enjoy some artists whose nipples we know nothing about.