[6 March 2007]
Kristoffer Ragnstam’s a drummer, so you might be surprised to hear that he’s crafted an extremely slick and full-sounding pop-rock album. But he’s also a Swede, and those guys pop out sweet new pop acts like there’s no tomorrow. Bands like Chester French should probably look up to Kristoffer Ragnstam—I’ll explain. The first, a young band of a couple of college kids tinkering around in the studio, has assembled a fresh-sounding synth pop sensibility and caught the interest of some high-profile producers. But they’re lacking that one hit song that could propel the band onto the airwaves and into the hearts of prepubescent girls across America. Writing the hit song is the eternal frustration for so many young bands, and especially so for those who have already worked out a “voice”, for whom the technology of the studio is a firm friend, and who can taste their own potential so keenly it must drive them mad. Of course, you could always take Custard’s oblique view of things and write a hit song about trying to write a hit song, then call it “Hit Song”.
Somewhere in between this earnestness and levity, Ragnstam has found a nice niche in which to search for that elusive hit. Less joke-y than fellow Scandinavian Gisli, and less consciously aware of eclectic absurdity than Beck, Ragnstam widens the the conventional pop-rock palette incrementally, in his good-natured incorporation of studio slickness to rock’s drive. And characteristically, rather than build a reputation on the back of a heavy workload of live shows (the rock way), Ragnstam’s relied on the recorded material to generate interest in his native Sweden and further afield throughout Europe (the pop way). So, did he find that hit?
I’m not sure which of these songs was picked as the first Swedish single, but there are actually a number of tracks on U.S. debut Sweet Bills that—pardon this—fit the bill. You might have a hard time getting opener “Breakfast by the Mattress” out of your head. The chorus is catchy as hell, and repeated enough times to lodge itself firmly (that’s effective pop songwriting, though not built for longevity). What is interesting about the song is the twist on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—instead, Ragnstam promises “one more hour and I’m your star”—and the maximal approach to songwriting. Effects, like a short rattle emphasizing the end of a phrase, are plentiful throughout the whole disc. Generally, these are effective at injecting interest into what could potentially have been a fairly standard rock-pop song.
But there are other songs that, almost equally, clamour for your attention. Title track “Sweet Bills” adds an neat studio squiggle to an otherwise unremarkable, though sweet, ballad. “Lonely Lane” is a Beatles-esque march, with full orchestral flourishes and a hint of disco—you might hear the Scissor Sisters in some of Ragnstam’s most upbeat work. “If This Is Life!” grabs you with a neat phrase (“another week of distance crawled”) and keeps you with the simple and eternally effective compositional trick of syncopation.
But, here’s the problem… when you think you’ve discovered the formula for a hit, it’s only natural to want to stick to that formula as much as you can. And if you do this, you might expect that by the end of an album, your songs may become a bit… predictable. Unfortunately, Kristoffer Ragnstam suffers this debutante misstep. “No One Told Me” starts simply enough (“Oh no, another Swedish winter… I miss the sun”), but bursts into another familiar radio rock chorus we’ve heard before. And a few of the other attempts at innovation fall a bit flat.
Still, here’s a way to become obsessed with Kristoffer Ragnstam: hear one song on a blog, or on the radio, or on a SXSW comp; get the album; discover the other songs one by one, until you’re ready for something new. In other words, let Ragnstam succeed in his aim to create pure pop music for this hour, this day, this weekend.