Sunday, 01 May 2005 18:00
There is something happening in Scandinavia.
There is something happening in Scandinavia. Something startling, seductive and a bit inexplicable. Music is being made by hundreds of artists that is fresh, potently creative and thrilling to hear. And it all started pretty much in the past decade. How many musical acts from Scandinavia can you name that date farther back than that? Abba and A-ha, right? Who else? I thought so. Cultural changes have taken place not only in the nations that make up Scandinavia—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland (the latter nation is not strictly considered part of Scandinavia by most Europeans, but culturally and aesthetically, it shares many Scandi characteristics, so we’ll be including it in this column)—but in the international music distribution apparatus. The result is that scores of musicians have been able to peddle their creative wares, and while some of the music has created a stir on these shores (The Hives, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Royksopp, Kings of Convenience, et al), most remain unknown to all but the most adventurous listeners. And a vast amount of music has not even found domestic distribution in this country. We’re talking about fantastic, boundary-breaking pop music, too. It’s a phenomenon that first grabbed my attention about five years ago, when I stumbled across records by Poor Rich Ones, Kings of Convenience, Ephemera and Citizen Bird. I started trying to learn about the music scene in Scandinavia and found that there was an entire world to be explored there. And I couldn’t figure out why so much of it was unheard of (and unavailable) in America. My exploration first resulted in a piece in Playback called Scandi is Dandy, intended as the first of five musical surveys for the magazine. But I found that my research and acquisition of new music were outpacing (and hence, outdating) the original scope of the surveys. So my work has now led to this column, which will be a monthly investigation of the Scandinavian musical landscape. I don’t want to make too many generalizations about the region. After all, it contains as much musical diversity as we have in the U.S. And being from Scandinavia is not an automatic guarantee of high quality, needless to say. But there is unquestionably something worth investigating here. There is so much fantastic pop, rock, folk and electronic music emanating from northern Europe today that it begs the question, what are they doing over there? What’s in their blood, their brains, their culture and their amazing STUDIOS that is resulting in so much sonic magic? No single answer is likely to emerge; what we want to do is explore every factor, and look at a wide variety of artists of the region to seek clues to this heady mystery. There’s a creative language being spoken in Scandinavia, one that reflects a level of passion, playfulness and artistic vibrancy that seems to have been tamed or overly commodified in America. We’re going to talk to the musicians, producers and label owners to find out how they’re doing what they do. We will look at recordings from across the stylistic spectrum and tell you about artists you’ve never heard of who deserve your attention. And we’ll have fun in the process. So welcome to Norse Code, where we will concern ourselves solely with all things Scandi and celebrate the magic of the area’s music.
Let me explain a few things about the approach I’m going to take. There will be few strict guidelines in this column; I want it to be as lively and offbeat as the best of the Scandinavian musicians themselves. Each month, we will hopefully have an interview with an artist or musical insider from the region. And we’ll also look at both popular and obscure recordings. We will NOT limit ourselves only to what is “new.” That has very little meaning when three-fourths of the recordings in Scandinavia are not even easily available in the U.S. A record that came out two years ago but has never had a U.S. release would be NEW to you, right? So I’ll consider it my duty to inform you of really great records that came out a few years ago, just as much as the “newer” discs. Also, I’m going to evaluate or rate albums in several different ways. That’ll be as follows:
Overall Rating: How I generally rate a recording based on the performance, production and level of originality. This will be on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a masterpiece, and 1… uh, not so much.
Otherness Meter (OM): The term “otherness” is a concept I read in a very moving book some years ago, used to refer to all things mysterious and beautiful in nature. The author wrote that “adequate otherness is vital to the well-being of most humans.” I’m expanding the parameters of this concept to convey the idea that adequate otherness is also vital to music fans. Music that repeatedly follows the same old stagnant formulas and fails to distinguish itself in any way is anathema to a sense of wonder in the listener. We’re going to regard “otherness” as the feeling you get when music (or some component of it) is mysterious, unusual, aggressively original or simply way outside your own experience. In Scandinavia, there is a rich tradition of things that are mysterious and unusual. They’re close to the Arctic Circle, they’ve got the midnight sun and those long, dark winters. They’ve got Vikings in their history, trolls, fjords, reindeer, Sami throat singers, and in Iceland, geysers and volcanos. And hey, how about that very mysterious national healthcare system they’ve got? The point is, they’re different from us. And that’s good. Strangeness is good. And despite the efforts of Republicans in America to try to make us all the same, diversity is to be celebrated—and cherished. So the bottom line is, whatever is special and unique about the Scandinavian culture is worth honoring, learning about and preserving. We DON’T want them to be more like us (you hear that, all you Swedish garage bands?). We want them to stay Scandinavian and draw on their own rich heritage. All that said, our “Otherness Meter” will range from 1 to 5, with 5 representing a piece of music that is utterly, wonderfully mysterious, unique and representative of an aesthetic or cultural tradition that the average American listener is unfamiliar with or seldom encounters, and 1 representing a piece that may still be very good musically, but sounds like lots of other stuff out there, although there is at least something about it that rises above the norm (if not, it would rate a ZERO). Most of the time, records with an OM rating of 1 will have little to differentiate them culturally from records released in America or the U.K. To put all this in quick perspective, Sigur Ros in general rates a 5 on the Otherness Meter. The Hives and Sahara Hotnights rate a 1. See how it works?
Certified Scandi Classic (CSC): From time to time, when a Scandinavian release of exceptional merit reaches our ears, we may assign it this honor. The rating will be given only to albums that are not only extremely good, but also rate high on the Otherness Meter (probably a “3” or above). It’s for albums that represent the very best of Scandinavian music, whatever genre, and proudly reflect at least some characteristics of the local culture. So a rating of CSC indicates the very top of the heap.Now that all this introductory stuff is out of the way, let’s dive in and start talking about the music!
We’ll go ahead and look at a pair of genuine CSC’s right off the bat, shall we? The first is the debut album by Lampshade, Because Trees Can Fly (Glitterhouse Records). Lampshade is comprised of four Swedish musicians and a phenomenal Danish female vocalist named Rebekkamaria. We’ll be talking a great deal in future editions of this column about the exceptional talent and sensuality of many female singers in Scandinavia, but RM truly stands out. Her vocal timbre and deliberate phrasing are certainly reminiscent of Bjork, but there’s more of a little-girl sound in her voice at times, and she’s free of the manic energy and hyper eccentricities that some find tiresome with Bjork. Instead, she is focused, passionate and blessed with an ethereal grace. On the title cut of Trees, there’s a point where she sings the line “And I scream your name, dear” (repeating “dear” several times), with “your” sounding more like YOR, due to that delightfully Scandi accent. It’s fetching, it’s sexy, it’s intoxicating. Besides the vocals, the other memorable aspect of Lampshade’s sound that grabs your attention is the dense, churning electric guitar squall that is pitched somewhere between the atmospheric drone of early Cocteau Twins and the supercharged buzz of My Bloody Valentine. I would be very surprised if guitarist Martin vad Bennetzen were not a fan of Robin Guthrie and Kevin Shields, but regardless, this guy produces an astounding roar on his instrument. You wouldn’t think such a sound, which is occasionally abrasive, could work so well with Rebekkamaria’s soft voice; the fact that it does earns this disc an Otherness rating of 3. I can think of no similar group in America. “Within Symmetry” is one of the quintessential tracks on this remarkable disc: RM’s voice, intoning lyrics like “There is my treasure/There is my playground,” is mesmerizing, and when Morten St. Poulsen’s graceful trumpet joins the mix, it’s just astoundingly beautiful. “As I Left the Room” is a long track with a two-minute instrumental prelude that sounds like Low before another delightful RM vocals enters. The artful balance between her voice, Daniel Lofgren’s drumming and MVB (doing his best MBV!) ripping off waves of potent guitar noise is a wonder to experience. “Raindrops” is a truly gorgeous, haunting dream-pop song, with a melody largely consisting of RM singing three descending notes; “ Plakka Plakka” is also a striking composition. Because Trees Can Fly is an especially meaty album; it crosses the one-hour mark in length, with no dull tracks, and it has a minimalist cover designed by Rebekkamaria herself. The disc deserves to be heard in America, and I give it an overall rating of 9 out of 10. Also, it’s a CSC by my reckoning. It can be easily ordered through http://www.glitterhouse.com/, which has an English version of the site
My featured artist of the month is the Swedish band The State of Floral Beings. From the colorfully weird artwork that graces their new CD We Know You Love Us and That’s Why We Do This ( Trewetha Records) to the dark but driving synth-dominated sound anchoring their music, TSOFB have their own fascinating approach. The band, consisting of core trio Johan Bring, Mattias Peterson and Erik Rundelius with supplemental musicians, conveys the impression that an extraterrestrial has either penetrated their ranks or influenced the sound, and this impression is heightened by the track “My Life With The Montana Midnight Runner (Parts 1 and 2)” on which you hear a snippet of the apparent actual original newscast from the Roswell UFO incident in 1947, stating that the army had recovered a crashed disc. Very spooky. Album opener “Andy” is catchy as hell, with numerous elements competing for attention, including a frenetic rhythm, a wonderfully engaging matter-of-fact lead vocal, a primary background vocal that simulates an air-raid siren and secondary background falsetto vocals that add rich texture to the mix. The lyrics about “Candy Andy” are quirky in a Syd Barrett kind of way, and the whole song is just fascinating to hear. There are at least four other genuine classics, too. “Modern Samurai” has a wildly propulsive manic energy to it that is only heightened by having the main vocal sung mostly on one pitch, something few groups have the nerve to try. A little two-note synth part adds a striking musical counterpoint, and the overall feel is reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle.” Speaking of Eno, one of the few musical touchstones here is, in fact, the legendary Bowie- Eno Berlin trilogy of the ‘70s, where dark undercurrents of sound gained added impact from the playful, experimental attitude of the musicians. This same ethos seems to be working for State of Floral Beings. On “The Elephant Machine,” where a Bowie- ish vibe clearly pervades, Rundelius ’ precise percussion (superb throughout the disc), a primitive synth and an unsettling vocal (“I can’t stand it any longer/I smell the fear outside my wall”) add up to another ace track. But the album’s most brilliant track is probably “Sleep Spray,” which is so curiously contructed and challenging that it’s hard to even describe. It’s built around a dramatically decaying synthesizer sound and a crisp rhythm track, over which ominous lyrics are sung. Then there’s a short burst of atonal feedback which triggers a harmonically satisfying melodic shift with several different elements to it. “If anything would work out/Then you’ll hit me with the sleep spray” goes the recurring refrain. This track is truly awe-inspiring, and you can turn it up real loud without it ever getting too abrasive. It’s spooky, weird and uncategorizable, although a few of the artists I jotted down in an effort to find frames of reference were Clinic, The Residents, Devo, early Echo and the Bunnymen, and Tuxedomoon. “Freeway Man” and “Selfish Hands” are also very cool songs (“How many people get to spend/Their lives free and unbound?” goes a lyric in the former). And “ Dirtnap” is a grabber of a track in which the division between the eccentric vocals, the trashy synth and the ambient distortion seems to disappear, leaving you simply with a fully realized, darkly compelling piece of Scandi-rock. Truly it’s an adventuresome album, this thing. Overall rating: 9. OM: 3. CSC.
The members of The State of Floral Beings live in Stockholm, although Bring says he grew up in southern Sweden. The band’s name implies a close connection to nature (the proximity of which applies to nearly all of Scandinavia), and Bring confirmed this.
“It felt very much like us,” he said. “We are very much like nature in our minds: I can feel that my brain basically originates fromthe mud I'm standing on. We finally decided (the name) for us when we dressed up like flowers to record a video in late autumn some years ago. Running there barely naked in the forest, we felt that this is correct and perfect.”
“There is something very fascinating with plants and flowers, they grow in their own directions,” said Peterson. “You try to cut them down but they find new ways and grow back again stronger than before.”
Asked about the overall influence of Sweden’s climate and landscape on the band, both Bring and Peterson waxed eloquent.
“The climate is mostly the same all over this country,” said Bring. “I love the big views over the seas, the mountains in northern Sweden and the big woods. I like the winters in the north, where above the tree limit it feels like you're on another planet but at the same time very much on this planet. I believe most of the coldness in our music comes from the environmental coldness that surrounds us here in Stockholm. People are really cold here. We're also actually recording and rehearsing in a cave over here.”
“The coldness and the stiffness of people around me makes me want to jumparound and scream in their faces,” added Peterson. “So I guess the music kind of reflects those feelings I have about the climate and the attitude in Stockholm.”
Though there is definitely a coldness and unsettled mood to TSOFB’s music, that certainly doesn’t mean the sound is without passion. Quite the contrary; the music is filled with a simmering “trapped like an animal” intensity of feeling. There’s a sense of things being suppressed due to survival needs; a sense that though something wicked this way comes, one has to stay focused and keep your eyes on the road, whatever that may be. It’s a neat trick that the band creates this kind of mood with a minimum of guitars, something that puts them in the minority among Swedish bands.
“We’re definitely trying to avoid guitar rock,” said Peterson. “I feel so very limited when writing songs with a guitar, so I use keyboards instead. Nothing wrong with guitars, but it doesn’t feel creative and exciting for us anymore.”
“From the start, we only had synths and no guitars,” added Bring. “Then suddenly we got struck by guitar madness and it became just guitars for a short while. Just short enough to get the idea of how we should use that instrument in our music. I think it was because we had to fix our relation to guitars. I’ve grown up with synth music. But now I really love guitars, too. I think a very free approach is good, free tunings, etc. The world is full of instruments, and we’d use any that we think are good.”
Naturally, I had to ask the guys about the whole Swedish garage rock scene, which is unavoidable these days. In fact, most Americans are only familiar with that aspect of the music in Sweden, and it conveys a false impression. Garage rock, of course, is totally guitar-centric, so any band that doesn’t walk that road tends to stand out.
Bring: “First, I think the guys who plays that kind of rock are the guys who got their first guitar from their dad. They're just trying to impress, show him who’s a rebel. And then also it’s very comfortable to play that music because everyone knows it and you never need to explain yourself. It's so very much part of the culture today and so completely non-rebellious-rebellious and accepted by media and commercial, etc. I hate it from the bottom of my heart, not always the music itself but the whole idea.”
Bring says he remembers hearing music like Jean-Michel Jarre, the Miami Vice soundtrack and the song “One Night in Bangkok” when he was young. He was also exposed to later King Crimson and early Pet Shop Boys.
“I never understood and listened to rock at all until Iwas 16. Never got too impressed by it then, either. It was all synth, and I wanted harderand rougher synth. Nowadays there has been so much music going through these ears and I'm doing whatever comes into my mind. I want it to be completely me. But then, what I think is me, my soul, is probablythe result of how I grew up. When I do good music that I'm comfortable with, it feels more like I connect myself to some universal ancient web and just let go. I'm slowly starting to believe all that stuff about vibrating magnetic fields through the universe, and the nature of the music itself, not the recreated one from human theories about how it should be made and resurrected.”
“There doesn’t have to be strict rules when making music,” said Peterson. “Of course our own subconscious is playing a large part in the songs. At least mine is.”
“When we make music, we just let go,” said Bring. “Actually we had no idea how people would experience it, and we didn’t care about that at all when we made it. I’ve always like the things where you are free to make up your own thoughts about it the best.”
The sheer number of bands trying to make it in Sweden ensures that there will be a lot of sound- alikes. In that regard, the extent to which TSOFB stand out from the crowd is a minor miracle. Peterson acknowledged that many Swedish bands are influenced by older music and have been for some time.
“A lot of bands everywhere are trying to sound like something already out there,” he said. “And that's sad and a waste of talent, I think. Maybe you should only listen to music you hate and then not be influenced by it at all! Maybe it becomes an anti-influence that you strive to get as far away from as possible musically. The first bands I heard and really liked were Modern Talking, Westworld and Alphaville. Stuff like that was played on the radio all the time when I was growing up. Then when I got older I went through a hard rock/heavy metal/sleaze rock/rock 'n roll/rap-metal whatever kind of period which lasted for some time. So Ithink I have both synth pop music and rock music very close to my heart .”
The burgeoning Swedish music scene of the past decade, which certainly makes the competition for international attention fierce, doesn’t seem to bother Peterson.
“I don't think it's discouraging at all that there are a lot of really great sounding Swedish bands around. We don't play the same music anyway. There is only one The State Of Floral Beings, and we can play along with the other children without any problems.”
TSOFB do seem uncertain about the commercial prospects for their brand of music, and they all agree that they must look beyond their native land to expand their audience.
“There is no way to make a living in a music career with this kind of music in Sweden right now,” said Bring. “There are too few of the open-minded people seeking new stuff. There is also this poor category of people here that buy all the new music just to stay cool, but always need to associate it wth something they’ve heard before in order to like it. If they don’t understand it, then they’ll associate it with something it isn’t really like at all and say they hate it. These people are mostly music journalists over here. They categorize everything and put it in their library, and you shouldn’t do that to our music.”
Bring is hopeful that there will be a percentage of people who will discover TSOFB’s music and respond to it.
“People that can listen to our music and like it are mostly a certain type of people who are able to open their minds and let go. These people are also the ones that easily can connect themselves to that universal web I was talking about. The number of those people is constant in the whole world, I believe, and that means that Sweden is too small for us. At least for now. Maybe in some years everyone will sound like us and then people here might think it's OK. Just like it has been with all types of new music. The big herd needs to see some important people liking it before they’ll just follow without understanding.”
For Bring, the “important” people may be the American market. Bands across the musical spectrum know that if you can make it in America, you have a real chance to advance to the next level in your career.
“I think the United States is the country for us—it seems like a country full of very different people who follow their own path more than here, and are accepted for that,” he said. “Maybe it's just the eternal Swedish dream about the country since the old viking Snorre (which means “Dick” in Swedish) discovered it. I think I'd like to live somewhere in northern America in the woods by the Pacific. Or perhaps in Newfoundland.”
It may be a while before the “States” see the Floral Beings. But in the meantime, they can be justifiably proud of making a thoroughly modern and intriguing album, one which is sure to get some attention outside their country. We Know You Love Us and That’s Why We Do This is available to order through CDON.com.
There are few female singer/songwriters in the U.S. making music as poignant and simply pretty as Norway’s Maria Solheim. Only in her mid 20s, Solheim has released three full-length CDs already, the most recent of which is titled Frail. And that it is, a delicately emotional folk pop outing in which the vocals are impossibly tender and mixed up front, true to Norwegian form. The level of melancholy throughout is intense, but rendered exquisitely listenable through the beauty of Solheim’s acoustic guitar and voice. “Kissing Me” is one of the loveliest acoustic songs I’ve ever heard, utilizing a haunting descending note sequence vaguely reminiscent of Nick Drake’s old classics. The song sounds like a romantic ballad but lyrically it seems fraught with anxiety, like the relationship Solheim is singing about is anything but secure. “You holding me/I am holding my breath in dismay,” she sighs, as the guitar picking incites shivers down your spine. The two-minute length of “The Snow Has Killed” is also quietly devastating. Couched in an incredibly catchy soft-pop melody and with Solheim tearing your heart out with her vocal, this tune may be one of the saddest ever to mention Christmas: “You gave me your word of protection/You gave me your word and a smile/While the darkness covered our faces/The morning discovered the ice/It’s Christmas Time and you’re hurting me again.” In a similar mood, although with Solheim singing in a tougher, perhaps deliberately husky timbre, is “Pain,” which is very odd and unsettling. One hopes the song is not autobiographical, as Solheim tells of each member of her family having “died of a deadly disease,” while she feels pain in her body, “but I’m sure it will pass.” This is truly compelling music, the only possible corollary in America being some of the work of Lisa Germano, or the early solo records by Kristin Hersh. Some tunes, like “Mr. Iceman,” sound perkier on first listen, but nearly every song, via elegantly minimal lyrics, reveals a preoccupation with loss, romantic yearning or fear of the future. “Because I’m Dead” is a gorgeous soundtrack for the subconscious, appearing to end after a short verse, then resuming with an incredibly beautiful repeating keyboard part and something listed as “tone drops” in the credits. I honestly didn’t know if I was asleep, awake or deep in some dream listening to this piece. Recordings like this are a treasure to find, and provide the sort of emotional catharsis that’s an endangered species in American music these days. Maria Solheim is an exceptional talent on every level; let’s hope she’s not too “frail” and personal to arouse interest in the U.S. marketplace.
Jacob Faurholt and Sweetie Pie Wilbur is the name of a charming trio from Denmark. There is no one in the band named Sweetie Pie Wilbur (although the back cover of the CD sleeve for Queen of Hope, their debut, shows an illustration of a pig with the name “Saint Wilbur” below it). Instead, the music on this curious disc is created by Faurholt, multi-instrumentalist Kasper Ronberg Schultz and female vocalist Trine Omo. Most would probably describe it as lo-fi folk/pop with casual male-female vocal harmonies. In the amusingly off-kilter press release accompanying the CD, we’re told that the band “don’t think too much about classic virtues as technical competence and instruments in tune, but on the contrary they make small mistakes and disharmonies and make them become a part of their honest and natural sound.” For music resulting from such an apparently easygoing approach, this is one of the most purely enjoyable song cycles I’ve heard in ages. Two hallmarks of the band’s sound are the curious separateness of the male-female vocals (they are not tight harmonies; rather, they almost seem at times to be recorded in different rooms—yet they are thoroughly engaging to hear) and the odd construction of the songs, which convey the vibe that they were just made up during one particularly inspired session. “Catch the Rose” is a particularly captivating little tune where two male voices (presumably the third is Schultz) and Omo’s softly feminine purr create a transfixing blend. “Alone With You” is a jaunty little classic that features subtle orchestral backing. On “Faceless Ones,” instruments like harmonium and melodica make you think you’re listening to Mum at first, until Faurholt’s low voice (stylistically a bit like a less strident and less whimsical Jonathan Richman) enters the mix. Schultz’s voice (again, presumably—the credits don’t make it clear) sounds like it’s being performed through a megaphone; that’s very likely the case, since the credits do include “megaphone.” On the gorgeous “We Like Snow,” you hear acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and three soft voices combining to create the impression that the song itself is gliding quietly above a snow-blanketed landscape. It’s beautifully recorded, and the snatch of ambient electric guitar and the subtle organ that ends it (dissolving into the sound of precipitation outside a window) add to the track’s shimmering beauty. An unexpected violin appears on “You and I” and “Pictures,” with the latter track being another example of the Scandi propensity for off-kilter beauty, like a painting that you have to look at from several different angles to thoroughly understand or appreciate. “Run, run away with it/We can go anywhere/We can go anywhere,” sings Faurholt in a repeated lyric here. The first is good advice for the adventurous listener, and the second is a sort of promise made by these talented Scandinavian musicians, one that could just as well represent the region’s overall creative aesthetic. On the basis of delightful recordings like this, it truly does seem like they can go anywhere they want.
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