I remember Jens Lekman writing or commenting once about his adolescence that all the cool kids were, at that time, listening to ‘80s new wave bands and being melancholy with that particular exclusivity kids that age can pull off with such ease. Or was it that’s what the cool kids are doing in Sweden right now? Either way, the Mary Onettes seem wedded to that same depressive pastiche as an accoutrement of cool, though never (unfortunately) with a strong feeling underneath it all. There’s more real feeling in “If You Ever Need a Stranger” than in any of the songs on The Mary Onettes. Okay, maybe that’s an unfair comparison. But—if only this new band could channel some of their compatriots’ character.
The Mary Onettes are a Swedish band intent in channeling the elements of ‘80s style – the dark jangle of the Cure, the dour vocal stylings of Morrissey. But the real problem here’s not one of style; it’s one of substance. Sure, the big-echoing drums are authentic, but if you don’t have solid songwriting beneath them what’s it all in aid of?
Throughout the album the production smoothes out all hint of edge in favour of a well-crafted, studio rock that’s primarily aimed at the airwaves. Vocalist and principal songwriter Philip Ekstrom abuses his resonant baritone the way Johnny Cash once did – it’s an easy source of character for songs that might otherwise just slip past without registering. Even the songs that feel self-consciously bigger, more anthemic, more single-worthy are lacking something. “Void”, one of the first singles, reminds of Interpol, but the chorus doesn’t ping; the song’s all jangly atmosphere, the pale aftermath of Joy Division, with nothing much else.
Better is “Lost”, rising over a disco-turned “Bad Moon Rising” melody with an attractive widescreen palette. “Under the Guillotine”, one of the most upbeat numbers, is an album highlight. The coiled guitar line crashes into a repeating refrain that’s almost unhinged (that’s way out on the edge for these guys), and the mispronunciation of the title (“guill-i-o-tine”) is charming. “Still” subverts the potentially powerful guitar sound its opening calm presages in favour of a cinematic, chiming atmosphere. “Two hearts beating”, the lyrics read, referencing U2’s “Two Hearts Beat As One” from the 1983 album War —which fits perfectly into the panoply of ‘80s idols from which the Mary Onettes draw their musical referents.
There are a few Scandinavian bands treading somewhat similar territory. I thought of Cut City primarily, with occasional flashes reminiscent of the Legends’ latest record as well. Each of these groups is proficient, writing neat little pop songs that have the requisite swells, bridges, and textural change-ups to deserve at least some measure of investigative curiosity. But again, each somehow fails to be completely memorable. For the Mary Onettes to climb above the rest, for one, they’ll need to vary their tempi a little more – too many of the songs on The Mary Onettes are mid-tempo, halfway between a ballad and a charging upbeat rock pace.
Which all goes to say, the deluge of Swedish exports staggers somewhat with the Mary Onettes. They’re barely comment-worthy except to say, in all their new wave glory, the band’s perfectly average. Oh well—if you’re yearning for more Depeche Mode or New Order, this band’s good for a few tunes that hearken back to the ‘good old days’.
// Notes from the Road
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