Pop Required; Emotion Optional
Abba. A-ha. The Cardigans. Annie. All are known for their cool, smart, pop music wherein sugary melodies belie sophisticated music and emotions. And all are/were Scandinavian. So it is that when a new Scandinavian pop act comes along, critics start brainstorming hyperbolic phrases, and expectations are generally raised. It’s become a legacy, and it’s a much better one for the region than, say, Manowar.
Stockholm’s Teddybears, in their press material, have made it clear that they’re prepared to ride this legacy to the tops of Best of the Year lists—not to mention charts—everywhere. But take a closer look at the aforementioned four acts. Despite the skin-tight melodies and sometimes clinically immaculate production, at the heart of all these acts’ best music is genuine feeling. Even if, as in the Cardigans’ case, it’s been hidden beneath a layer of ironic detachment, it’s there. Even if Morten Harket’s voice makes you want to run your nails on a chalkboard for comfort, you can’t deny that he means what he’s saying.
That’s Teddybears’ problem, basically. The music runs like a production clinic; the beats thump, the melodies lodge in brains. But the emotion, the feeling, is just not there. Or if it is, it’s lost in the shuffle of a stylistic hodgepodge and a half-dozen guest vocalists. One potential explanation for this is easy: Soft Machine is essentially a compilation album. Teddybears have been around for 15 years. Like Pop Will Eat Itself, the Shamen, and many others, they started out as a postpunk noise band. Originally, they were called Skull. Then they changed their name to Teddybears STHLM and began to explore electronic, pop, and dancehall influences. All but a few of Soft Machine‘s tracks are taken or re-recorded from Teddybears STHLM’s last two Swedish albums, 2000’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool and 2005’s Fresh.
In true pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles-style, Atlantic has sliced up two albums, added some singles, and pasted it all together to form a “new” album. Two of those singles in particular lend Soft Machine its commercial weight. “Cobrastyle”, from Fresh and featuring dancehall star Mad Cobra, is one of those songs you just hear “around”: on TV commercials, sports highlights shows, and movie soundtracks. If ESPN still released Jock Jams CDs, it would be on there for sure. Lost in all of this is that, despite being peppy and catchy, the song is essentially weak and annoying, and really more like a repeated loop than a song at all. Then there’s “Yours to Keep”, a re-recording from Highschool that now features Swedish-born comeback girl Neneh Cherry and Norwegian It Girl Annie. It’s Teddybears’ attempt at a Big Pop Moment, as Cherry had with “Buffalo Stance” 17 years ago and Annie recently enjoyed with “Heartbeat”. Again, the song is less impressive than the guest list. It starts out sounding like Mike & The Mechanics’ “All I Need Is a Miracle” and eases into a pleasantly swelling chord sequence, where it remains. It’s a good tune, and it captures that melancholy feel that the Scandinavians are so good at, but it’s still…underwhelming. In part due to Cherry’s disinterested, off-key performance, it never reaches that level of catharsis and euphoria that classic pop aspires to. Ditto for Soft Machine as a whole.
The two tracks that do really get somewhere both feature the vocals of Daddy Boastin’ of the Swedish dub collective Trinity Sound System. His thickly accented, unmistakably Swedish patois on “Ahead of my Time” is very endearing (as he sings it, the song’s title sounds like, “I had a bad time”). Add a danceable rhythm and guitar surges, and you have what’s easily the album’s best track. Likewise, Daddy turns “Little Stereo” from a nice little hi-nrg number into a catchy pop song. If only all of Soft Machine could be this sharp.
But it isn’t. “Punkrocker” comes close, with a classic new wave crunch and Iggy Pop’s unmistakable croak. But Pop shoots the thing in the foot with lines like, “See me sneering in my car / I’m driving to my star.” Erm, whatever you say, Iggy. A couple further dancehall-inspired tracks, the downbeat electro of “Riot Going On”, and the pseudo disco of “Black Belt” only add to the sense that Teddybears are trying too hard.
You get the sense that Teddybears want to be more than just a party band or a production team that turns out intelligent dancefloor staples. But they’ve surrounded themselves with too many styles and vocalists to realize their serious pop intentions. A band named after a Phil Spector creation should know that all the production genius in the world is worth only so much if it’s not underpinned by real emotion.
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// Notes from the Road
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