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Division of Laura Lee: Black City

Stephen Haag

Division of Laura Lee

Black City

Label: Burning Heart
US Release Date: 2002-08-27
UK Release Date: 2002-02-04

Okay, so Black City came out a year ago, but the cynic in me gets the feeling that Swedish-garagesters Division of Laura Lee is one of those right-place/right-time bands; after all, merely wearing a guitar and hailing from a Nordic country is currency enough to garner a mention in the likes of Rolling Stone these days. Sure, DOLL might catch deserved flashes of reflected White Stripes/Strokes garage glory stateside, regardless of their nationality, but add to the mix the fact that DOLL hails from the tres-chic rock capitol of Sweden and one can hear the hype machines firing up from across the Atlantic. The cynic in me would be wrong. While they're not quite on par (almost, though!) with their Northern European contemporaries the Hives, the Hellacopters, and the Flaming Sideburns, DOLL add their own flourishes to garage, expanding the boundaries of the genre.

Maybe you're tired of all this Nordic rock -- even the A-list stuff -- and I can't say I blame you, as they all sort of blur together ("Soundtrack of our Backyard Sahara Hives?"), even to the keenest ears. And yes, while Division of Laura Lee -- guitarist/vocalist Per Stalberg, bassist Jonas Gustavsson, guitarist David Ojala and drummer Hakan Johansson -- fit in with every band mentioned to this point, they carve their distinctive niche in the scene.

Album opener "Need to Get Some" could be "Everybody Wants Some" from a parallel universe where Ian Curtis fronted Van Halen. It's dark, to be sure, but it's a busy song, droning and pulsing, the heart of their black city illuminated by the occasional squad car roaring down a rain-slicked boulevard. (Word of warning: DOLL have a soft spot for disconcerting ambient noises. In addition to police sirens, they toss in traffic ["We've Been Planning This for Years"] and ringing telephones ["Black City"]. Consequently, this may not be the best album to listen to while driving. Just sayin', is all.)

Try as I might to describe Division of Laura Lee as a standalone band, apart from the Nordic rock invasion, my best laid plans lasted for all of one paragraph. On "We've Been Planning This for Years", lead singer Stalberg dips into an impression of Flaming Sideburns frontman Eduardo Martinez (a trick more impressive when you consider that Martinez is Argentinian), and the song itself -- dark and rife with fuzzy guitars -- could double as a hidden track off the Raveonettes' b-minor manifesto, Whip It On. And like the Hives on "Statecontrol", DOLL tip their caps to their government's Socialism on "Second Rule Is": "KGB / I know that you can't see me" (Yes, I know the KGB is not Swedish.) -- though the tune could pass as a less frenetic version of the Hives' "Outsmarted".

At this point, my words make Black City sound like just another album from another Nordic band, processed by some rock and roll cloning machine and packaged for America and points beyond. It's a good thing, then, that the middle of Black City shows heart and spunk. DOLL channel Joy Division on "Trapped In" -- particularly Ojala's clean, Albrechtian guitar -- and Stalberg's resigned lyrics and delivery ("I'm furious over the state I'm in") couldn't be bleaker. Sweden's notoriously high suicide levels suddenly make much more sense.

Need more proof? "I Guess I'm Healed" finds the band displaying a gentler, twangier side to balance the slick garage. Amidst the guitars, bongos and keyboards, Stalberg turns "I Guess I'm Healed" into a near-whispered prayer: "I used to cry myself to sleep for ten years / But now I'm dry". It's not as depressing as it sounds; think Stockholm's answer to Sea Change.

DOLL do have a playful side, though. "The Truth is Fucked"'s chorus of "The twoo is fuh" buzzes around Stalberg; the driving "Pretty Electric" snags both a huge bassline from Gustavsson and one of the album's best riffs courtesy of Ojala. It all ends with the strutting "Wild and Crazy", which is fairly standard (at least sonically) but earns its title with lines like "I feel so easy when you piss on my face".

Division of Laura Lee's blessing and curse is their homeland. They're part of a vibrant rock scene, and with neat tricks like injecting '80s new wave into their mix, they've got the verve to attain the escape velocity needed to transcend the genre into which they've been lumped. Let the countdown to blastoff begin.

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