The Swedish twee poppers' first album in six years is short and very sweet.
What does a band do after it has made its definitive statement? That's the question the Swedish "twee-pop" band Acid House Kings has been grappling with since 2005. That year, they released the quintessential Acid House Kings album, Sing Along With Acid House Kings, which included the quintessential Acid House Kings song, "Do What You Wanna Do". From their beginnings in the early 1990s, the band identified their marks as the Smiths, Felt, and the British C86 sound. They released albums at a deliberately slow pace, in part to keep focus and maintain quality control. The sound and success of Sing Along With Acid House Kings must have seemed like the culmination of a well-laid plan. But what next?
In the interim, Acid House Kings have faced some issues that are common to bands in similar situations. An album which was slated for 2010 never materialized. Recordings were made, and then scrapped. Founding guitarist Joakim Ödlund mysteriously disappeared from the lineup, apparently at some point during or after recording was complete.
But they've come out of it all in fine shape. With Music Sounds Better With You, Acid House Kings have not reinvented their sound. Nor have they made a carbon copy of Sing Along With Acid House Kings. Rather, they've streamlined their signature summery pop, focusing more on uptempo songs and a high energy level. Some bands find much-needed creative impetus in discovering vintage synthesizers or new recording methods. Leave it to Acid House Kings to get a boost from Swedish dancehall music and castanets. Yes, castanets. You know, those little wooden shell-like percussion instruments that you might refer to as "clappers".
It's a unique and novel concept, yes, and "It has castanets on every song" is a great tag line for an interview or press kit. But castanets are really not what Music Sounds Better With You is about.
Rather, the album is about half an hour long. At ten songs, it's about short, sweet pop rushes that are so full of liveliness and melody it's nearly impossible to resist them. If you're a fan of short, sweet pop rushes that is. And you probably are if you know a band like Acid House Kings even exists.
Music Sounds Better With You's first two singles are a good indication of the album's overall feel. "Are We Lovers Or Are We Friends" is the kind of Motown-ish stomper these guys have done before, but never so convincingly. You get the lean, sonorous lead guitar line, a nice counter melody played by what sounds like a pump organ, and Niklas Angergård's exquisitely soft-handed voice. "Would You Stay Stop?" is a worthy counterpart, taking a more traditionally indie-pop but no less beguiling approach, replacing the organ with flute and strings, and featuring Julia Lannerheim's flirty-yet-defiant girl-group cooing. If some pop goes in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, these two tunes simply swirl around your head until you're dizzy, then flutter away.
The other instant sugar rush on Music Sounds Better With You is "Underwater". It's actually a small bit of a new wrinkle, too. The track is more hard-driving than you might expect from Acid House Kings, with a power-pop electric guitar that would be loud were it not compressed and turned down in the mix. Whimsical pop doesn't get more perfect than this.
Even on an album that's so sweet on the surface, some tracks do go a bit deeper. "Where Have You Been?" gets a little lonesome-cowboy disaffection going before briefly succumbing to an uplifting, trumpet-enhanced chorus. "There Is Something Beautiful" is genuinely downcast, with both vocalists falling into a beautiful, gently swaying melancholy. As every sweet-tooth knows, there's a fine line between just enough candy and a big stomach ache, and one of the reasons Music Sounds Better With You is ultimately so successful is Acid House Kings know how to toe that line. There's also a fine line between sounding like Saint Etienne and being Saint Etienne, and "(I'm In) A Chorus Line" probably crosses it.
The album ends with a bout of clever wordplay. "I Just Called To Say Jag Älskar Dig", that latter phrase being Swedish for "I love you", is a joyous love song with Smiths-like guitar lines. "In Swedish it sounds honest, sincere / Heartfelt, almost heartbroken", sings Angergård. It's the album's most affecting lyric, and not a bad summation of Acid House Kings at their best. "Heaven Knows I Miss Him Now" is an obvious nod to the Smiths classic "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", and provides a suiting denouement.
And as for those castanets? Well, Acid House Kings keep their promise. Every track has 'em. On a couple songs the percussive claps add a galloping effect that works pretty well. Most of the time, though, they're superfluous and annoying, adding an unnecessary feeling of sameness. When they just barely peek through the mix on "There Is Something Beautiful", it feels like a joke. It's a rare case of Acid House Kings being too clever, too coy, by more than half.
The band were pretty right on when they claimed that Music Sounds Better With You does not re-define pop, but just might define it. No boundaries are being explored here, much less broken. Acid House Kings are favoring consistency of quality over experimentation. They're not going to give you a lot of new looks, but they're making sure the looks you get are straight-up knockouts. Music Sounds Better With You may well beget claims of stagnation or even "selling out". But you can't get too philosophical when you're in a candy store.