Thirty years ago, it would have been entirely conceivable that Caesars would have hailed from some college town in Middle America, bratty Iowans or Michiganders hawking fresh, ragged garage-rock with a distinct chip on their shoulders. It’s a statement to the globalized reality of this fledgling century, then, that they come not from Bloomington, Indiana, but from Borlänge, Sweden. Several generations of required English instruction in Swedish schools, along with consistent interaction with Anglophonic pop culture, has served to bridge much of the fundamental disconnect between the chilly Nordic social-democracy and our North American monoculture. Sharing a common vernacular has allowed a whole generation of musical acts to find some limited success in this hemisphere, from the Hives to Mando Diao to Jens Lekman (to say nothing of ABBA and Ace of Base, though perhaps many Swedes would prefer that we did say nothing of them). From an indie rock point of view, at least, Sweden is basically another hip American college town.
Although Swedish artists are perfectly fluent in both languages (English and rock), one does get the occasional prickly intimations of carpetbagging when listening to some Swedish pop music. Swede rockers approach English both gingerly and enthusiastically, with a mixture of the caution of a mail clerk and the reckless appropriation of a Viking warrior. In some cases, such as that of the Cardigans and especially the Hives, this can lead to clever defamiliarizations of endlessly familiar English; these non-native-speakers sometimes contort the language in ways that would never occur to those for whom it is a mother tongue. But this peculiar position can also have its downside: witness the Soundtrack of Our Lives, whose music is a combination of entertainingly-rendered classic rock pastiches punctuated by random word-association song titles like “Play Station Bordello” and “Jehovah Sunrise” that evoke approximately zilch. This propensity, when combined with the slick stylistic rips that also seem so common, gives off the distinct impression of a national music scene populated by talented pantomimes.
This is Caesars’ ultimate undoing on Strawberry Weed (perhaps unsurprisingly, the Soundtrack of Our Lives’ ursine frontman Ebbot Lundberg produced the album). They’ve got the classic power-pop weapons in their arsenal, certainly: there’s no shortage of falsetto melodies, handclaps, sharp guitars, synth organs, and punchy rhythms. And these elements do congeal into effective songs now and then, as they do in the impossibly infectious title track and the closing Kinks-on-‘roids freak-out “New Year’s Day”.
But the flirtations with superficiality that characterize power-pop in general are taken to extremes by Caesars. Lead vocalist César Vidal has an unerringly flat delivery that hardly endears us to the stultifying clichés of the lyric sheet, and sharing the vocal duties with guitarist Joakim Åhlund and drummer Nino Keller hardly improves the overall effect. Power pop only really takes off if it’s performed with such unpracticed joy and élan and underscored with enough lyrical wit to overcome its regressive tendencies, and with neither of these factors in play, Caesars’ take on the genre approaches the robotic.
If there’s a silver lining to Strawberry Weed, it’s that Astralwerks’ American release is half the length of the original Swedish double-album. The record seems a lot more taut and effective than it actually is when one reflects that there were originally twice as many songs to it. Restraint does wonders to Caesars’ dominant aesthetic, but there’s still that indefinable verve missing here. In retrospect, their advertising-world hit “Jerk It Out” said everything that’s really worth saying about this band: its hooks are undeniable, but there’s so very little to it that feels like it was made by human beings. Caesars are not so much the soundtrack of our lives as the soundtrack of our lives if we were all dancing silhouettes in iPod ads.
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