Perhaps unknown to many, the Scandinavian region has produced a bumper crop of enjoyable music as of late.
Writing about acts by geography essentially groups unique, blisteringly awesome bands into a superficial category so that I may discuss them at length without having to justify their obvious disparities. In other words, the following talented pop/rock musicians, who all happen to be from Sweden, have made my job easier. None are ABBA either, so my job is a lot more pleasant.* Thanks, guys.
Not to be confused with that one popular band whose name involves both clapping and saying 'yeah,' Shout Out Louds have earned some airplay on a few select modern rock stations around the United States, but not as many as they deserve. "Howl Howl Gaff Gaff" is packed with poppy, fun rock'n'roll tracks with keyboards and growling guitars, plus a singer who can control his foppish voice in ways that Conor Oberst never has. "Oh Sweetheart" alone can stay in your head, and in rotation, for days.
David Fridlund's voice cracks at the end of his poetic track "April & May," and the sparse video films him barefoot, with heart on sleeve and an emphasis on his woefully messed-up teeth, his hands pulsing on the piano. If it all sounds sort of goosey and nerdy, that's because it is, and it's sublime.
Fridlund is usually known as the David element of Malmoe, Sweden's David & the Citizens but broke away to make the album "Amaterasu" solo. His smart chamber-pop and intense, familiar melodies will appeal to fans of the Decemberists and Ben Folds, his emotional (read: NOT emo) and confessional style laid bare in his lyrics. Several tracks feature only himself, a piano and a backup singer -- songs build and collapse like an umbrella, but it feels good to be in the rain.
José Gonzalez was born to Argentinian parents but raised in Gothenburg, Sweden. Rolling guitar rhythms and melodies dot his quiet, subtle and sometimes menacing songs on "Veneer," reminiscent of Nick Drake. Like Fridlund, Gonzalez's newest album was released by the most excellent Hidden Agenda Records. His stripped, heartbreaking songs are un-polished (production-wise) and his guitar and vocals are sometimes double-tracked a lá Elliott Smith. Standout cuts like "Heartbeat" and "Lovestain" are cold and circular, perfect in their imperfections and for the upcoming snowy season. This is his first output available to American audiences, an extremely promising example of big things to come.
Dungen eluded me, amongst others, at the CMJ Music Marathon this year when they canceled one of their shows (thankfully, I was able to capture Wolf Parade and force them to perform at gunpoint). The popular, afro'd lead man Gustav Ejstes sings only in Swedish on "Ta Det Lugnt," but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the year's best offerings. Binding '70s classic rock, space rock and psych pop, Dungen is successful because of the chances each member takes. The result is big, big, big, with modern anthems outfitted in retro fashion.
I've never been to Sweden, so I couldn't tell you if everyone hangs out with each other at the same hockey rink or what -- but 2005 has been a stellar year for each of these acts. I'd say it's the water, but the ocean that divides us can't be that different.
(* Obligatory ABBA joke. Took a chance.)