Swedish music is big in the United States these days, with bands like the Hives, Sahara Hotnights and Division of Laura Lee storming onto the charts with their brash, flashy brand of garage rock. Now comes the latest Swedish import, Nåid, and they’re . . . oh, wait. They’re not garage rock. Actually, they’re not even a band; Nåid is just one guy, Martin Landqvist, and the fact that his biggest claim to fame is co-producing the last album by a-ha (remember them?) should give you a clue as to what type of music he favors. Yep, Nåid is dance pop all the way, a mix of throwback new wave/synth textures and forward-thinking house beats. The words “Sweden” and “dance pop” might cast your mind back to your “Dancin’ Queen” days, but thankfully, Nåid’s music bears as little resemblance to ABBA—or a-ha—as it does to Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s rock histrionics.
The most obvious point of reference for Landqvist’s work is not ABBA but the Norwegian electronica duo Röyksopp, since both artists share a Scandinavian pedigree and a penchant for melodic dance tracks with house beats so understated you almost forget they’re there. But where Röyksopp’s music has a decidedly experimental, trip-hoppy edge to it, Landqvist is content to keep within far catchier territory—or at least that’s where he spends most of his time on Waking Up, his sophomore album, which is finally introducing Nåid to American audiences a mere seven years after his European debut. God, what is wrong with the American music industry? Just because Nåid’s first album was mostly tracks with titles like “Blastjarnan” and “Zeidao”, we’re not allowed to hear it? And Landqvist has to sing everything in English to finally get his stuff released over here? But I digress . . .
Despite the long, arduous journey Landqvist’s music took to reach American shores, most of Waking Up is fairly innocuous stuff; songs like the title track and “Turn On (City Lights)” have the earnest, squeaky-clean pop hooks and subdued dance grooves of bygone blue-eyed soul acts like Bryan Ferry or Style Council, the latter of whom Landqvist cites as a major influence. Most of it works, but it’s hard to get excited about music with tones this muted and influences this obvious. Another influence, intentional or otherwise, might be Seal, another purveyor of dance pop that’s so polished it manages the neat trick of being soulful and soulless all at once.
At first shine, the best tracks on Waking Up are the first four, all of which have just enough to rhythmic oomph to work on the dance floor. Besides “Waking Up” and “Turn On (City Lights)”, Landqvist gives up a little breakbeat action and a melancholy vocoder on “Stars” and, on the album’s uptempo highlight, a very fine piece of dream house with “Eternal Life”. The album shifts gears after that and actually starts to get more interesting, trying a slow funk groove on for size on “Shout it Out” and pulling it off thanks to Peter Fors’ funky slap bass and Landqvist’s dreamy, echoing vocals and synths. “ICBA” gives a fair-to-middling nod toward spiky electro-pop, while the closing track “Yukawa 5 AM” seems to be striving for BT territory with its mix of restless breakbeats, shamelessly pretty, arpeggiated synths and the angelic vocals of Icelandic nymphette-du-jour Hanne Juul. The rest of the album’s second half is made up of ballads: “Better Day” gets really Sealesque with creeping strings and plenty of melodramatic soul stirrings; “This Could Be Our First Day” is practically a Nik Kershaw anthem in its prettyboy earnestness; “So Free”, the most effective of the lot, weaves a web of dreamy synths over a slow, shuffling beat as Landqvist channels Paul Weller.
The fact that I just summed up this entire album in a single paragraph gives you a clue as to how slight Nåid’s music is, but ultimately this is actually an asset as much as it is a handicap. In these days of overproduced, multi-layered dance pop, where any idiot with ProTools and a Roland 808 can churn out one 64-track epic of pumping synth riffs and percussion loops after another, there’s something refreshingly clean and old-fashioned about Martin Landqvist’s airy production style and wide-eyed songwriting. Even the album’s length, running just 10 modestly-timed tracks, feels more 1980s than 21st century. And in this case, that kind of ends up being a good thing. Waking Up isn’t going to storm the charts or stand the dance music world on its ear, but it is going to provide some happy moments for plenty of fans who like their dance music mellow, moderately soulful, and unpretentious. And 100% ABBA-free, thank you very much.