The Scandinavian path from ABBA's ice castles to Fever Ray
Americans have always been lured by the siren call of those blindingly blonde babes and bewitching blue-eyed boys, but what exactly is "it" about Sweden that keeps us wanting more? The country is known for being progressive, well educated, sexually liberal, and neutral in wartime. A Swede even holds the Guinness World Record for spinning the most yo-yos simultaneously (nine).
Sweden has infiltrated American style; I don't know anyone who doesn't own at least one thing from Ikea, H&M, or Cheap Monday. These companies convey a sleek, stackable, skinny image. This impression is debunked slightly by the current Yerba Buena Center for the Arts exhibition "Irreverent: Contemporary Nordic Craft Art," a showcase for clothes you can't wear and furniture you can't use, such as Frida Fjellman's chandeliers populated by glass owls and frosted squirrels.
There are also the images Bergmania has left us: stunning and haunting images of long coastlines, 18 hours of daylight in June, and splendid mountain ranges shrouded in December darkness. The snow-white vampires of Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008) proliferate our nightmares. The comic glum chums of Roy Andersson's You the Living (2007) will soon come calling.
For a country with a landscape that's roughly equivalent to California and a population of about 9 million, Sweden is an impressive exporter of music the third largest in the world, bested only by the U.S. and U.K. The boom began in the 1970s with those pop perfectionists, ABBA, who crossed the Atlantic to bliss us out with the melancholy euphoria of 1976's "Dancing Queen" (their sole U.S. chart-topper, although they were the most commercially successful band of the decade).
Following ABBA's footsteps and to some degree formula, lesser and at times laughable groups emerged from Sweden in the 1980s to reinforce the bright blonde stereotype. Europe advised us to "Open Your Heart" and Roxette counseled to "Listen to Your Heart." Although these acts managed to break into the mainstream, none attained the same timeless staying power of Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Anna-Frid, with their teen anthems about sneaking out under mama's nose and "having the time of your life," and their darker, more adult post-Arrival (Polar, 1976) material.
The 1990s only solidified Sweden's reputation as a pop paradise. It brought some ludicrous acts, such as Rednex with 1994's "Cotton Eye Joe." But Ace of Base gave us "The Sign" in 1993, and the Cardigans crafted powerful, lasting songs and even albums. Perhaps most notably, Max Martin made Britney Spears famous by writing and producing her 1998 debut single "... Baby One More Time" and creating many more hits for her and the Backstreet Boys. He also collaborated with Robyn, who has achieved cult and critical success at home and more recently in the U.S. with her own songs.
In the 21st century, Sweden's international music presence has grown more multifaceted. The Hives brought rock to the American charts in 2000 with "Hate To Say I Told You So," and American indie kids and Kanye West went bananas in 2006 for the whistling jam "Young Folks" by Peter, Björn, and John, whose fifth and newest album Living Thing is set for release this month. The female vocalist on "Young Folks," ex-Concretes member Victoria Bergsman, is now focusing on a solo project, Taken By Trees. Psych-folk-jazz rockers Dungen put out their fourth proper album, helpfully titled 4, last fall. The group's U.S. label is Kemado, while its sound is increasingly Komeda as in Roman Polanski's early film composer Krzysztof Komeda.
The Swedish acts, if not hits, keep coming: last month brought femme foursome Sahara Hotnights' album of cover versions Sparks (Universal); January delivered delicate folkster Loney Dear's Dear John (Polyvinyl); and charming, Björk-influenced Maia Hirasawa puts out her second album next week. The beautiful Lykke Li recently played the Fillmore, where her opening act, the Västra Götalands Iän duo Wildbirds and Peacedrums, was to die for. Indie-pop trio the Bell recently played the Independent, and the Dylan-inspired Tallest Man On Earth (a.k.a. Kristian Matsson) breaks free from touring with Bon Iver to headline shows in support of the acclaimed Shallow Grave (Gravitation).
Sweden's second largest city, Gothenberg, plays host to lovelorn troubador Jens Lekman, Madchester-influenced boy duo the Tough Alliance, and doo-wop dolly El Perro del Mar. Another Gothenberg resident, acoustic singer/songwriter José González, gained popularity in 2003 when his cover of Swedish electro duo the Knife's "Heartbeats" was set to a Sony commercial in which 250,000 colored balls bounced down the steepest streets of San Francisco.
González's version of "Heartbeat" resparked interest in the Knife's original, and brother and sister duo Olaf Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson built on that audience with 2006's critical fave Silent Shout (Mute). This week, sister Karin introduces her solo recording project, Fever Ray. Like her work with the Knife, the 10 songs on Fever Ray (Mute) couple icy electronic atmospheres with quite literal lyrics one song even refers to dishwasher tablets.
Whatever the "it" is that has captured the hearts of so many Americans and sent all these acts across the ocean to us, it continues to grow and assume new forms. If you ever make the trek to pop paradise, remember: they refer to Swedish Fish as "winegum candy" in Sweden. It's kinda like how the French don't use the term "french fries."
THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH
with Herman Dune
March 25, 7:30 p.m., $12$14
155 Fell, SF