More Olympian pop from Sweden? What the hell are they feeding them over there?
Many cherry moons from now, on one golden evening when you're daydreaming beside one of your final fires, your grandchildren may ask of you, "Gramps, what did YOU do during the great pop wars of the early 21st century?" Well, your life will not have been wasted if you can look them square in the eye and reply "Johnny, I fought alongside the Swedes". Yup, ABBA's babies have all grown up and are marching toward the front line of sophisticated, sassy pop; Robyn, Lykke Li, The Knife / Fever Ray, El Perro Del Mar, Nina Persson, Rosanna and maniacal Über producer "Mad" Max Martin. In 2011, strange though it may seem, Sweden is helping lead the glorious revolution to keep that beautiful thing we call 'Pop' alive. Agebjörn, Johan! Go grab your ivories, we're heading out.
Agebjörn's Top Trumps profile outlines his pedigree. He cut his teeth in the "Neo Italo Disco" duo Sally Shapiro that has thus far dropped two cult classics, 2006's Disco Romance and 2009's almost perfect My Guilty Pleasure. His specialism? "Tragi-disco". A potentially lethal form of synth pop which chemically infuses mournful, melancholic verses with ecstatic, euphoric choruses. The effect? Richter-scale glamour. On Casablanca Nights Ms. Shapiro again rides shotgun for a spell alongside a crew of upcoming associates in what could be described as "A pincer attack with sparkly synth bits" or "The Expendables with a Mirrorball". And for a while at least, everything goes to plan.
After a red herring overture, "8ths", which feels like we've been slipped the latest Richard Clayderman joint by mistake, out come the dukes, a pounding 4/4 disco drum signals the alarm to report to duty. The giddy "Last Day of Summer" features Queen of Hearts mourning the collapsed ruins of her spring romance where alas "The tide had washed love away". Fear not, I know what you need! A Keytar solo! Dancing away the heartache works every time. This is swiftly outgunned by "Watch The World Go By" featuring Lake Heartbeat, and is tragi-disco par excellence. The chorus alone is a bloomin' colossus. "Don't say you understand / Just take me by the hand / I never wanted to be special / I just wanted someone special to be mine". Cue flashbacks to every great summer holiday romance you've never had.
The most devastating hit though comes early with Agebjörn's remodeling of Friday Bridge's "This Case is Closed". Ylva Lingberg's ballerina voice is a thing of rare wonder. The delicate, second-language phrasing in her vocal is fragile, hypnotic, bewitching and breathtakingly poetic. Imagine a youthful Kate Bush channeling vintage Pet Shop Boys under a sky of neon and rain and you're getting there. The driftwood loneliness of the Taxi theme reborn as a noir disco classic. "You're not careful enough" scorns Lingberg. Just heavenly.
Surprisingly, the centerpiece "Sally Shapiro Showcase" itself is a mixed haul. The title track treads too reverentially to the tried 'n tested and seems too familiar to leave any great impression. Despite its sweet naivety and lyrical charms -- "Friday night is so far away my dear" -- it's nothing they haven't bettered elsewhere. The duet with Italo legend Fred Ventura, "Alice", hugs a little too tight to pastel pastiche, too. The Flirts' "Passion" bass line, the arched eyebrow melodramatic delivery. It all screams "Eurofab Discothèque, 1983, day-glo jumpers, white trousers, big hair, lookin' smooth. Luckily, sensible folk know melancholia sounds infinitely more elegant and elegiac sung in The Language of Love so très bien for "Le Noir Et Le Blanc Sur Le Piano". Pattering drums, twinkly piano and – Mon Dieu! - a talky bit near the end. File proudly betwixt "Le Parisien" by Danielle Deneuve and Eighth Wonder's "I'm Not Scared" then rejoice. Tasteful berets and tailored macs all round please barman! Shapiro's other appearance on the Hi-NRG Charlie tribute "Spacer Woman From Mars" is equally entertaining. Punchy 'n relentless with lift-off rocket effects and a loopy robot rap, it's impossible to remain in the seated position.
Despite being generally bluer than the Swedish flag, the real sadness lies in the second half being a bit underwhelming. The warm, introspective, near-instrumental "Memories of Satie" echoes Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Forbidden Colours" but feels, somewhat, in the wrong room. Elsewhere, a pair of tunes share the air of a flustered Agebjörn frantically rummaging through his sock drawer and handing you crumpled sketches with an awkward "Will this do?" glance. "So Fine All The Time" isn't completely unlovable but would be infinitely improved if it had followed "Quite Sensible Plan A - Do Proper Vocals" and not "Plain Annoying Plan Z - Borrow Frampton's Talk Box". The weakest spot, though, is tragically at the end. The chillaxin' "Stranger" is probably meant to be experienced sat cross-legged in a scented boudoir whilst wearing nowt but a man nappy. In other words, it's the kind of laughable mystical hokum you might uncover on a Maxi Jazz solo album. In other words, "TAXI"!
Casablanca Nights presents a very classy business card for the Smörgåsbord of talents of Johan Agebjörn. Although it's slightly uneven, he is clearly someone who understands the way great pop works. The healing, alchemic power of pop. Titans of pop should undoubtedly be looking his way and, for starters, the campaign to lock Agebjörn in a studio with Pet Shop Boys begins here. It also introduces some fresh gladiators to the arena and reaffirms just how high Sweden is flying the flag for luxury pop in 2011. Nordic night-runners, what are they feeding you? Yet whilst Casablanca doesn't deliver an all-conquering victory, it's at least a cool Clint Eastwood-style taunt to peddlers of dull, dreamless pop. "Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, PUNK"? Consider yourselves warned.