Hederos & Hellberg sound like a respectable pharmaceuticals company, or possibly a meeting of Greek and German philosophic minds. In fact these two Swedes are indeed respected and do represent a fusion of sorts, although the respect is due on behalf of the Swedish rock scene (and those lucky cognoscenti who caught on in the rest of Europe) and the fusion based in Hederos’s role as keyboardist in strange yet beautiful alt-rockers the Soundtrack of Our Lives. Hellberg plays guitar with the Diamond Dogs and the Hellacopters, creating the kind of zero-irony hair and glam metal to make the Darkness look like the well-meaning joke they really are. So this album’s going to be a retro Scandinavian party, with lots of freewheeling guitar solos and pounding piano lines, right?
Showing a perhaps disappointing amount of Nordic restraint and discipline, they’ve decided to do virtually the opposite and make a covers album, where, to quote the press release, “Mattias sings and sometimes plays the harmonica, Martin plays the piano and taps his foot. Simple.” So we’re talking late-night wine bar intimacy rather than huge flaming stage sets, Martin’s gentle playing shifting in luminosity like flickering candle light whilst Mattias clutches the microphone close to himself, letting his grief break his voice and power the swelling blues of his harmonica; a man desperately seeking that last drink to put him out of his misery. They are, in fact, exactly the sort of band you can imagine Ryan Adams listening to whilst he wept gently onto his guitar and wrote Love Is Hell. And lo and behold, he has in fact taken them on tour with him and rates them “one of my great favourites of all time”.
Now, a covers album is an ambiguous proposition for a review writer, given that on the one hand any vaguely demanding critic is going to deplore the group’s lack of imagination (not to mention hard graft), whilst on the other a selection of songwriting standards means that he’ll hopefully be spared any sub-par material, whilst being able to vaunt the vaults of his musical memory by comparing every cover with the 15 other, lesser-known ones of the same song (and still criticise the band for lacking imagination).
However, given that these two make no bones whatsoever about being out to break your heart, Wilco-style, you’re going to have to find someone else to criticise them for deciding on a little over 30 minutes of songs that have been making hard men break down and sob like babes for up to half a decade now. You’ve got Gram Parson’s “She”, you’ve got Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, you’ve got the miserable-isolation-through-drugs anthems “Signed D.C.” and “Smoking Too Long”, and inevitably that uber-paean to affectionate misery, “Pale Blue Eyes”, is also present. And indeed it’s the first track on the album; respect is due to the pair for bravely starting as they mean to go on. What, you’re probably thinking, no “Hallelujah”? I agree, but Leonard Cohen’s ode to religiously powerful adoration turning into blasphemous despairing rage has been already taken to such heights by John Cale and Jeff Buckley that quite frankly I can only applaud Hederos & Hellberg’s wisdom in declining the challenge.
Tom McRae’s recent must-hear cover of “Pale Blue Eyes” not withstanding (ahem), the pair’s exquisitely simple renditions are pretty much matchless (as covers only, I should point out before I get lynched). Having stripped away everything extraneous whilst remaining faithful to the originals, this collection is pretty much an ideal template for How To Sing Other Peoples’ Songs: you don’t just take on some songs you really like and display your ego by thinking your band is going to bring anything to them, you work out exactly the feelings you want to evoke and then bring out the shared essence of songs you’ve loved too long to ever disrespect. No, there’s no technical wizardry on display here, and the songs don’t vary much in tempo (or mood, hah), but frankly when the wavering certainty of Mattias’s singing starts to tear, and Martin’s fluttering playing can’t quite bear him up anymore, you just won’t give a damn.