[30 October 2007]
The Swedish music scene has offered us plenty to rejoice about over the past several years. From electronic virtuosos like The Knife and The Field to more instantaneously endearing pop acts in the vein of Jens Lekman and The Concretes, it seems that at least a handful of Swedish artists per year have made a significant impact on the international scene. Perhaps even more impressive than their expansive output is their stylistic diversity, churning out a variety of musical styles that can be easily deemed both rich and highly expressive.
While the placid casuals of listeners may have previously assumed that Sweden was the home of ABBA and little else, justice has been richly served through a seemingly endless list of exemplifying artists. It has easily come to a point where one should not be surprised if a Swedish artist wins any individually valued “Album of the Year” award, as Swedish music has finally reached a point where it is no longer considered to be a staple of obscurity. These artists are no longer part of a localized majority. They are instead now recognized on a international level.
When a band like The Tough Alliance comes along, it simply serves as a reminder why it is impossible to singularly classify contemporary Swedish music. The duo from Gothenburg can arguably serve as one of the most accurate summations of the recent music trends in Sweden. The Tough Alliance weaves elements of irresistible pop seamlessly with electronica that, while occasionally complex, offers more than a handful of melodic swoons capable of instant favorability. Though the duo’s central focus remains within the somewhat conventional realm of electronic pop, the showmanship presented on their sophomore album, A New Chance, is stylistically remarkable. From the infectiously danceable leading synth line in the irresistible “First Class Riot” to the brilliant incorporation of reggae and electronica in “Looking for Gold”, it is difficult to strictly classify The Tough Alliance as either an electronic, pop, or even reggae artist. It truly depends on which song on A New Chance you are exposed to, as the album is spread all over the place in an enjoyable form.
When A New Chance opens with “Something Special”, an energetic opener featuring a vocal sample depicting some form of a Middle-Eastern language unbeknownst to me, there is marginal room to make forthcoming stylistic assumptions. However, when the sample is abruptly supplemented by a brisk burst of keys and an overlying synth a few seconds later, the intentions of The Tough Alliance are highly evident. This is a duo that has inherited the desire from their Swedish forefathers to give listeners the sensation to be anything but motionless. With their eclectic mixtures of dance and star-studded electronica clashing cohesively with invigorating synth-pop, such feelings are difficult to resist.
As their full-length debut, The New School, demonstrated in 2005, they are certainly no stranger to the dance floor, whether it comes off as cliché or not. While “Something Special” works mainly off of a repetition of key-based chords, it is the diverse array of vocal melodies that grants the song its absolute infectiousness. The two boys from Gothenburg mix low-tone verses with high-pitched choruses and, with a chorus that remains cheesy but also guiltlessly pleasurable, it works seamlessly well in “Something Special”. While the fleet vocals are hardly demonstrative of a falsetto, the swift change is executed willfully and shows little hesitation.
While “Something Special” performs to the best of its abilities in creating an opening track that is catchy and simplistic enough to please first-time listeners, it serves as merely a tease to the stylistic ambitiousness spread throughout A New Chance. Perhaps the best example would be “Looking for Gold”, undoubtedly one of the most innovative electronic tracks of the year. Featuring a pair of melodically leading whistles intertwined with the drive of bouncing keys, the sound is both tropical and exotically invigorating. While the main melodic flow remains to be influenced by reggae, Henning Fürst and Eric Berglund demonstrate a larger knack for accessible pop music in their consistent vocal delivery. The Tough Alliance’s ability to blend several classic genres into a mold that is largely electronic remains to be one of their most glaring strengths, as it is most noticeably evidenced in the exceptional “Looking for Gold”.
Another highlight, “Miami”, is a casually invigorating dance track that implements a pulsating synth-oriented melody over a variety of samples. From an infant’s laugh to a choral accompaniment with a native Spanish tongue, The Tough Alliance remain to be one of the few electronic acts who abandons tiring repetition in favor of ceaseless structural capabilities involving instrumental advancements and sophisticated sampling to create a vivid listening experience. With this in mind, it is nearly ironic that the best track on A New Chance is “First Class Riots”, a straightforward dance-punk ballad that is inarguably one of the most infectious dance tracks I have heard all year.
While the instrumentation is nearly solely reliant on quick guitar chords and a few varying synth lines, the duo carries the entire song with their quick wit and vocal-led melody. As a quick “hey!” concludes each verse, it is one of the components in an abridged build-up that is executed without fault. With the verse, bridge, and chorus each being perceptibly separate in harmonic delivery, it serves to differentiate “First Class Riots” from the masses of other dull electronic hopefuls hoping to invade the dance floors with rhythmically dominating repetition. With a melody as strong as “First Class Riots”, this one has a more than legitimate shot.
When the final song on A New Chance, “1982”, closes with a series of wind instruments overlapped by the same Middle-Eastern chant that was sampled in the first moments of the album, it leaves a sense of lingering satisfaction but also a yearning for more. With the album stretching just over 30 minutes, The Tough Alliance’s electronically diverse style is far too short-lived for its own good. While there is truly not one disappointing song on A New Chance, the short length and clashing of various styles leaves a sense of slight disappointment, even if gems like “First Class Riot” and “Looking for Gold” will be on repeat for quite awhile.
While the debate about the “perfect length” for an album will always continue to live on, listeners should be fortunate of A New Chance’s impressive achievement. It is one of the few electronic albums this year that manages to avoid all geographic and stylistic clichés while in the mean time producing a very satisfying album. We can only hope that this import-only gem hits the US sometime soon.