SuperSwedish to the max
Hellacopters, Union Carbide Productions, and the Soundtrack of Our Lives
BY CARLY CARIOLI
When it comes to music, Sweden is best known as the country that gave us Abba and keeps on giving us slick teen pop. And that’s a fair characterization. But bubbling — or rocking — beneath Swedish pop’s polished surface are much harder-hitting bands like the Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Hives, the Hellacopters. Indeed, TSOOL — whose core members founded the chaotic art-punk outfit Union Carbide Productions in the early ’90s — are arguably the world’s best-kept rock-and-roll secret. Now, however, Parasol is distributing the band’s three albums, which previously were available only through Warner Music Sweden. And recent music showcases in New York, Los Angeles, and Montreal have aimed at providing exposure to emerging Swedish artists.
There’s reason to be optimistic that Swedish rock can break through. During one showcase in New York City, TSOOL and other acts performed to CBGB crowds packed with curious fans, the music press, and industry bigwigs. "It’s difficult, of course," admits Christer Lundblad of Export Music Sweden, an organization that since its inception nine years ago has worked to promote Swedish pop, over the phone from New York. "It takes time. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. We provide the showcase, we provide press. But no one thinks anyone will make it overnight. It’s a huge country, and your radio-station and TV situation is difficult to understand. But by doing this, we can test the reaction."
The latest rounds of showcases, he says, have met with enthusiasm. But whether all of this will translate into transatlantic success is anyone’s guess — especially when you consider that the Scandinavian outfits most eagerly embraced by the States in recent years have been acts of the disposable dance-floor variety.
Still, there are exceptions. Your New Favourite Band (Poptones), the debut album from Swedish garage-punkers the Hives, has sold 100,000 copies. And London’s Daily Telegraph has suggested that TSOOL "might be the best rock band in the world." There might be more such hyperbole were it not for TSOOL’s label affiliation. "Part of the problem," Lundblad explains, "is that they’re on Warner Music Sweden, and the company is not very good with importing artists. It’s a pity because they have had so much coverage here." Parasol’s Michael Roux says his outfit was floored to discover that none of TSOOL’s albums — 1996’s Welcome to the Infant Freebase, 1998’s Extended Revelation, and 2001’s Behind The Music — had been released in the US: "We couldn’t believe that no one had put them out."
Parasol has also signed chamber-popsters Starlet, breezy electro-dream weavers Club 8, and gorgeously melancholic singer/songwriter Lasse Lindh, and these artists appear to be making headway on college radio and in underground-pop circles. Club 8’s fourth disc (their second in six months), Spring Came, Rain Fell, is a slice of Cardigans-esque heaven that’s just been issued on Parasol’s in-house subsidiary Hidden Agenda. Lasse Lindh’s sophomore effort, You Wake Up at Sea Tac (also Hidden Agenda), is all satin melodies and crushed-velour heartbreak, with echoes of Matthew Sweet and Elliott Smith glistening through the ebb and flow of guitars. Sea Tac is Lindh’s first disc in English, but the album’s quiet tempest of grand heartache translates in any language.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s new ambient-dance-oriented Electronic Watusi Boogaloo has teamed with Athens’s Kindercore Records to release albums that feature both Swedish and American artists. So is it a reality, or just perception, that the current crop of quality Swedish pop seems particularly plentiful right now? "There’s always been a lot of good music," says Lundblad. "But when we have success with an artist [like the Cardigans], then other people start doing it. Success breeds success. We have what we call the ‘Björn Borg Syndrome,’ where we had lots of people starting to play tennis. It’s the same thing with rock."
— Jonathan Perry
The Hellacopters have died and gone to Heaven. At least that’s the impression you get from the cover of their new High Visibility (Gearhead), on which the quintet have sprouted angel’s wings. When in 1996 the Hellacopters debuted with an album entitled Supershitty to the Max (Man’s Ruin), the notion of Swedish death-metal refugees forging a flashy hard-rock album fast and raw enough to be a punk album was just tasteless and trashy enough to send a significant portion of the underground scurrying for their Kiss and Aerosmith collections. Six years and several dozen imitations later, the idea of kicking out MC5 jams to the tune of AC/DC is already beginning to feel a little bit quaint — Pearl Jam led off 2000’s Binaural with an Eddie Vedder–penned tune, "Breakerfall," that could’ve passed for a Hellacopters B-side.
Rather than try to keep up with the imitators, the Hellacopters (who’ll be coming to Axis next Friday) chose to segue from street-fighting punk to hard-working, mid-’70s proto-punk. And after a mild misstep on 1999’s Grande Rock (Sub Pop), High Visibility (originally released last year on Universal Sweden) finds them at peak power. Reborn as a blue-collar rock and soul revue in the tradition of Mitch Ryder, Bob Seeger, and John Fogerty, they’ve kept the hindsight of punk’s rabid thrift tucked in their jean jackets. And though they’ve settled into a formula of sorts — the shuffling riffs haven’t changed, they’ve just gotten a hell of a lot better at playing them — it’s in some ways as reliable a formula as the Ramones’, only with stampeding guitar solos. In the past two years alone, the Hellacopters have recorded the Dan Penn–penned, Otis Redding–identified "You Left the Water Running"; the Damned’s "Stab Your Back"; Smokey Robinson’s "Whole Lot of Shakin’ in My Heart" and "Get Ready"; Roky Erikson’s "Cold Night for Alligators"; and, on High Visibility, Silky Hargreaves’s soul nugget "You’re Too Good (To Me Baby)." Placed dead in the middle of the album, "You’re Too Good" fits right in against the double-time, organ-fueled "Baby Borderline" and a "Toys and Flavors" that, though it derives its licks from Kiss, keeps its nose to the maximum-R&B grindstone.
In retrospect, the appearance of an armada of Swedish groups imitating vintage American hard rock shouldn’t have seemed as surprising as it did in 1996. Just three years before the Hellacopters’ debut, Sweden’s Union Carbide Productions issued their final album, Swing, which was produced by Steve Albini. By ’93, UCP were not unknown — they’d almost signed to Sub Pop in ’90, and they’d received an admiring postcard from Kurt Cobain. And now, the small Illinois outpost Parasol (it’s based in Urbana) has made available all four of the group’s albums, which were originally on Radium. One listen to the first, 1987’s In the Air Tonight, and the roots of the Hellacopters become clear. The opening track, "Ring My Bell," is a growlier blueprint for Supershitty; "Financial Declaration" smashes the verse of "Kick Out the Jams" into the chorus of the Stooges’ "Shake Appeal," and the resulting pile-up remains, a dozen years later, shatteringly vicious.
And that’s not the end of the story. Even as the Hellacopters were assaulting the world with a hard-rock update of UCP, UCP’s two principals were launching a psychedelic sextet called the Soundtrack of Our Lives. Last summer, Parasol’s Hidden Agenda imprint obtained rights to the group’s three albums. Released last fall, the discs are an extended revelation in their own right. Given the immense craft of their albums, it’s hard to imagine how TSOOL stayed out of the spotlight so long.
Although TSOOL’s 2001 disc Behind the Music isn’t actually a VH1 tie-in, it ought to be — the album is a virtual highlight reel of your favorite troubled classic-rock groups. Where UCP distinguished themselves by following the MC5’s free-jazz jones to even more chaotic conclusions, TSOOL get their rocks off by one-upping their heroes in all departments. It isn’t enough to rip off the chords to "Brown Sugar" for a song called "21st Century Rip Off"; they also add an orchestra of buzzing, swirling Eastern instrumentation to the opening "Infra Riot," a kind of über–"Paint It Black."
At 16 songs, Behind is sequenced like a classic vinyl-era double LP: TSOOL’s "Keep the Line Movin’," which would likely lead off side C, mercilessly mimics the intro to Fleetwood Mac’s "The Chain," perhaps the finest flipside leadoff of all time. The hits just keep coming. The piano ballad "Tonight" drops John Lennon’s "Imagine" into an immersion of Stephin Merritt–like detachment. The raven-quothing "Nevermore" sets Poe to neo-psych pop as pristine as that of Oasis and Neutral Milk Hotel. And you can hear the lunatics slithering on the grass in a triptych of brain-damage tunes — "In Someone Else’s Mind," "Mind the Gap," and "Broken Imaginary Time" — that display a marked affinity for Roger Waters–era Pink Floyd.
(The Hellacopters will appear at Axis, 13 Lansdowne Street, next Friday, April 19. Call (617) 423-NEXT.)
Issue Date: April 11 - 18, 2002
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