[13 October 2011]
If you’re of a certain age, the chiming guitar chords followed immediately by the big, reverbed-out drum fill is instantly recognizable. It’s Roxette’s “The Look”, which went to #1 in the United States back in April of 1989 and replicated that feat in 25 other countries. Appropriately, the song opens Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation, which covers every major single the band released in America, plus a couple others that didn’t do so well. And since Greatest Hits is essentially an advertisement for Charm School, the first new Roxette album in 10 years, there’s a pair of songs here from that album as well.
Roxette was huge in the U.S. for a couple of years. Specifically, 1989 through 1991, when they had four #1 hits and two other songs go to #2 on the charts. They were a legitimately popular band, but they don’t fit neatly into the story of American pop music. The Swedish duo wasn’t a boy band like New Kids on the Block, they weren’t glammy enough to be hair metal, and vocalist Marie Fredriksson didn’t have the outsize personality to be a diva like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or Janet Jackson. They were far from the only guitar-based pop act on the airwaves in the ‘80s, but they came too late to be mentioned alongside Journey, Survivor, or REO Speedwagon, and they didn’t have the rock legacy of Heart or Starship. So until the producers of the Rock Band video games decided to include “The Look” on 2010’s Rock Band 3, it had been a long time since Roxette had gotten any publicity on these shores.
As it is for many European-based acts, the Roxette story was considerably longer across the Atlantic. In the U.S., the band was a victim of the early ‘90s rise of grunge and gangsta rap, when heavy guitars and heavier beats pushed a lot of glossier music off the air. The band continued to find success in Europe throughout the ‘90s before shutting it down in ‘02 when Fredriksson was diagnosed with a brain tumor (she later recovered). The European version of Greatest Hits would no doubt be a little different than this U.S. release.
Listening to these songs now when the band has been out of the public eye for so long is a little like unearthing long-lost memories. The chorus of “Dangerous” comes around- “Hold on / You know she’s a little bit dangerous!”- and my initial reaction is “Oh yeah, this song exists!” The ballad “It Must Have Been Love” starts and I say, “Roxette did this song? Huh!” The title track from 1991’s Joyride brings up vague recollections of the band in the desert outside of a tour bus. Head over to YouTube and, sure enough, there’s Roxette rocking out in the desert in front of a tour bus. And also lounging around on a sports car lazily pretending to play guitars while terrible rear-projection footage of a road zips by behind them.
As for the quality level of the songs, it’s a bit difficult to separate the songwriting from the recording techniques of the era. The production on all of the tracks from 1988’s Look Sharp is hugely overblown. The synth sounds are cheesy, the previously-mentioned reverb-heavy drums sound terrible, and Per Gessle’s guitars are processed and filtered all to hell. Things aren’t quite as bad on the Joyride-era songs, with slightly subtler synths, more natural-sounding drums, and less processing on the guitars. The exception to this is “Joyride” itself, which sounds like it was mixed specifically to remind people of Roxette’s previous hits. But “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)”, with its actual piano parts, sounds almost naturalistic when compared with their earlier ballads. The clean guitars and tambourines of the peppy single (but non-hit) “Church of Your Heart” are definitely a step in the right direction.
“Wish I Could Fly”, the lone track from the band’s later ‘90s albums, sounds like it was inspired by trip-hop in the verses before it expands into a big straight-up pop chorus. Sonically, though, it’s worlds apart from the rest of the songs on the compilation. The two new songs from Charm School sound like Roxette has worked to update their sound without losing their pop sensibilities. “She’s Got Nothin’ On (But the Radio)” thumps along on a disco beat and bass line with some grimy synths and expands into an instantly singable chorus. “No One Makes it On Her Own” is essentially a soul ballad with some inspired guitar work and nicely arranged backing vocals.
It turns out that despite the ‘80s sheen on the band’s biggest hits, Gessle’s songwriting is pretty sturdy. All of the songs on this compilation are catchy and listenable, although the uptempo tracks hold up better than the ballads. Roxette really shouldn’t have gotten lost in the shuffle of pop music history simply because they were successful at the very end of their era.