As my fellow PopMatters writer David Medsker noted in his recent review of an album by the Rhinos, there has been an explosion of releases by Scandinavian rock and pop bands in recent years. While the relatively high profiles of bands like the Hives and the Soundtrack of Our Lives have found critical praise and middling commercial success, there has been a veritable flood of lesser-known acts who've tried to export their sound out of Northern Europe and across the world.
At the forefront of this push has been the Parasol family of labels, which combined have been bringing the music of a scene that's truly flourishing across the Atlantic to North America. Now Canadian/US label Rainbow Quartz has joined in the fight (with some publicity support from Parasol), simultaneously releasing a set of discs labeled the Scandinavian 3 (the Rhinos, the Lovethugs, and the Jessica Fletchers). Rainbow Quartz is a label primarily known for producing indie pop with a decidedly retro edge, most notably acts like Cotton Mather and the Asteroid No. 4. Critics of the label have noted that many of the bands in its roster can easily be saddled with the description "derivative" and written-off as unoriginal. Of course, if every band that wore its influences on its sleeves were chucked out for that reason we'd eliminate 90% of rock history, great and small. Most of the bands on the Rainbow Quartz label know they're hopelessly retro, know they're derivative, know that they're emulating a style -- that's the point. Be it pure pop or psych-pop, these bands revel in their '60s heritage rather than try to overcome it.
The Jessica Fletchers, then, are a perfect match for Rainbow Quartz. The press on the band makes a big deal out of the fact that they've toured with both the Hives and the Apples in Stereo, but beyond the simple acclaim-by-association is a truth about the Jessica Fletchers: they sound like a marriage of these two acts. Derivative? Yes. Original? No. Delicious? Very. In merging a slightly lo-fi garage sound into the sunshine psych-pop, it's not hard to imaging the band appealing to both audiences. They're rough and garage-y enough to pass as a rock band, but they're upbeat and melodic enough to be a perfect pop band as well.
The disc begins with the warped electric guitar strains of "Bloody Seventies Love", a song that more or less sets the stage for the rest of the album. The psychedelic notes that open the track give way to the garage rhythms and jangling guitars of the chorus, all of which yields to a lysergic, Syd Barrett-like bridge of trippy vocals, then back to the poppy harmonies for the close. Catchy as hell and full of pop-rock hooks, the song is the first single from What Happened to The?, but in some ways it's deceptively slick. Less trippy is the following track, "Just Another Fashion Band", which instead opts for the swinging mod sound, driven by organs and trumpets into an Austin Powers dance scene. And that's the power of the Jessica Fletchers; they aren't nearly as one-dimensional as their retro pop description might suggest. What Happened to The? features guitars, organs, trumpets, cello, flute, and (of course) sitar, but rather than being singular, the disc isn't afraid to swing between styles within the over-all theme, often shifting gears mid-song.
When the band shifts into garage mode, as on "(Come On) It's Only Nine", there are even strains of later musical periods, and there's enough bratty attitude in the guitar playing to remind the listener of the Buzzcocks. But then they turn around with "Christopher Jensen" and turn into the Kinks and put on their best Davies brothers imitations. This kind of shifting tone continues throughout What Happened to The?, mixing lo-fi recording textures into power pop with an incredible ease. While the comparisons to bands like the Apples in Stereo are apt, there are moments where the Jessica Fletchers reach the nearly timeless pop joy of the Dandy Warhols, particularly on "I Got News". Closing with a variety of sonic treats, "Beatbox" offers the grittiest, bluesiest song on the disc, "Shoot" is cleanest Beatles approximation here, and "You Can Have Japan" takes things out on pastoral pure pop (cough, XTC, cough) note.
For all that, the hands down best thing about the Jessica Fletchers is that the music is just plain fun. Even bands that emulate the sunshine pop of the '60s often manage to turn out boring product (hey, it happened then too!), and there may be plenty of Scandinavian pop revivalists who fall into that camp, but the Jessica Fletchers get it right every time. Many of the songs on What Happened to The? were culled from previous EP and single releases on the Perfect Pop label in the band's native Norway, so they have the luxury of picking some of the best of their past to make up a full-length debut, but that doesn't take away from this album's start-to-finish pleasure.
You don't have to be a retro fan to see the appeal of the Jessica Fletchers, but if you're not you might not be able to look past the obvious "derivative" nature of their music. Too bad for you, because the rest of us are going to be enjoying this insanely fun band for as long as they keep up this kind of solid work.