We Might As Well Blow You Away
>Behind the Music definitely qualifies as a slow-burner of an album. Swedish pop-rockers the Soundtrack of Our Lives originally recorded and released the disc in 2001, a follow-up to their critically acclaimed Extended Revelation for the Psychic Weaklings of Western Civilization, and it’s been a jumble of international distribution releases ever since. Making waves in all the appropriate European circles, Behind the Music garnered the band a healthy contingent of British press support after its early-2002 release there, including name checks from Brit rock luminaries and an opening slot on the Oasis tour. Meanwhile, in the States, Behind the Music was an instant favorite of indie pop label Parasol, whose Hidden Agenda subsidiary wound up with initial US rights to TSOOL’s releases. Hidden Agenda’s 2001 initial release of the album gave the band a fresh wave of Stateside press support, including a review here at PopMatters by our very own Margaret Schwartz. That wave gathered momentum thanks to press and word of mouth and some healthy US touring, culminating in Universal picking up Behind the Music for a full-fledged major label re-release and a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album.
Sometimes good things happen to bands that really deserve it. If the continued interest and revisitation to a disc that’s approaching its second birthday seems odd, it may have something to do with the fact that it’s taken this long for the world to discover it. Despite the fact that “Surround Sister”, the first video from the album to broadcast in the US, was only added earlier this year, TSOOL is not by any means a new band. In fact, Ebbot Lundberg, Bjorn Olsson, and Ian Person have been laboring since the mid-1980s on their side of the Atlantic, slowly becoming the biggest Swedish export since ABBA.
Lundberg, Olsson, and eventually Person, first made waves as Union Carbide Productions, a Stooges-inspired loud and furious rock band that early on gained notice and praise from such figures as Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, and the Jesus Lizard. But after releasing a couple of acclaimed albums, Union Carbide Productions soon lost steam, with Lundberg in particular seeking a new musical direction. Focusing on their newfound love of classic pop and rock, with renewed emphasis on psychedelic acts, the Soundtrack of Our Lives was formed from the ashes of UCP.
Pinning TSOOL into a particular sound seems deceptively simple at first. References to the Who, Love, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Stones are pretty easy to make, and TSOOL’s inclusion in the Parasol catalogue seems obvious from a retro-rock standpoint. But the band also invites comparisons to Led Zepplin, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, XTC, Blur, Brian Wilson, the Verve, and a whole host of pop and rock icons reaching from the past to the present. In fact, as critics have increasingly noted, TSOOL seems to take the very best of all of these bands and incorporate it into a pan-rock sound that touches on a progressive history of rock’s key hooks and melodies, all while owning the sound as its own in a way that no other imitators of the past seem capable of.
As a pun on VH-1’s popular series of the same name, Behind the Music takes on rock and roll history with a fervor that exposes a distinct trajectory, yet places it in the present form of a band seemingly outside of time. The result is a sense that you could pick any era in music from the last thirty years or so and TSOOL would have a song to match. That might be a slight exaggeration. They’ve left most of the punky rage of their Union Carbide Productions days behind them, particularly with the departure of Olsson, so there’s not a whole lot on the heavy end. And they don’t dawdle in electronica, or rap-metal, but . . . that’s about it, really.
Perhaps one of the more illustrious examples happens between the ninth and tenth tracks of Behind the Music. I first heard the ninth track, “Nevermore”, as the leadoff on Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen Vol. 4 sampler. It’s a brilliant song, built on jangly acoustic guitar and piano melodies, complete with Wilson-esque “oooh, oooh” harmonies, and just enough twang that it seems like a lost Del Amitri song. Alone, it’s beautiful, and would place the band in solid footing on AAA-format radio. However, on Behind The Music, “Nevermore” is followed immediately by the superb “Independent Luxury”. Never has a band sounded more like the Stone Roses, with some nods to both the Charlatans UK and Stevie Wonder for good measure. As Lundberg croons in with the opening line of “Remember how it used to be”, you feel like you’ve gotten to the heart of the TSOOL experience: the music of the past made current, vital, and freshly alive.
One of the other aspects of Behind the Music‘s brilliance that bears mentioning is its constant shift and slide between tones and mood. While it never entirely gives up the rock energy at its core, TSOOL has no problems downshifting into a mellow chill territory. In fact, between Floyd-esque psych-outs, butt shaking anthems, and chiming twee ditties, the disc moves between intensity and introspection with such ease that Behind the Music feels like a journey through the range of rock emotion. As a reviewer, I’ve probably used the phrase, “a little something for everyone” far too often, but rarely have I mean it so emphatically. By the time you ride out with the shimmering “Into the Next Sun”, you feel as though you’ve truly experienced something great. It’s cheesy, but there’s no other way to explain it.
Behind the Music may have lost out on the Grammy (fatuous, over-bloated award that it is) to Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head (itself equally deserving of praise), but I have a feeling that the Soundtrack of Our Lives may have made a much more important contribution to music with this disc than Chris Martin and company. Heck, Behind the Music‘s “Tonight” even incorporates a little bit of the charm of Coldplay’s spare piano balladry. What’s more, some critics have unfavorably compared Behind the Music with TSOOL’s previous releases, noting its deviation towards the more straightforward rock attitude. It’s a subjective argument, to be sure, but I think that one of the greatest features of Behind the Music is this same direct confrontation. Neo-psychedelia will only take you so far, and while Behind the Music may not be the album that saves rock and roll (if it indeed needs saving), it’s certainly one of the most brilliantly enjoyable celebrations of it to come down the pipe in a long while.
It may be that TSOOL owes their current success to the ground broken by friends and countrymen the Hives, or that it took some big props from the Gallagher brothers (Oasis) to get them the notice they’ve earned, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Behind the Music deserves this continued attention. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives may be too much rooted in the past to be the future of rock music, but it’s a much, much better present with them in it.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More