We could have whatever we need/ We could call it ours
— The Legends, “Call It Ours”
Swedish pop musicians are often characterized by music writers, complimentary or not (usually not), as imitators or thieves. That’s one perspective on pop music: why make music if you’re not trying to do something completely new and different? Another is stated succinctly by Niklas Angergard, co-owner of Swedish label Labrador, in the liner notes to Labrador 100: A Complete History of Popular Music, the label’s 4-CD box set commemorating its 100th release and 10th year of existence: “I have a general view on art: that it’s more important that art is ‘good’ rather than ‘new’. Artists that revolutionize art by being ‘new’ are, to me, interesting from a historical perspective rather than from the perspective of consumption.” That’s the point of view that has driven the label for 10 years, that has driven it to become perhaps the most successful independent pop label in Sweden. The label’s discography doesn’t represent an attempt experimentation or innovation; it represents accessible, everyday-life music that the people behind the label flat-out love to listen to, and hope others do too.
Even the most eclectic-minded music fans, or critics who fancy themselves experts on all genres, have an inherent frame of reference based upon individual, personal likes and dislikes: upon taste. The Labrador sound is built upon the foundation of taste: the tastes of the label’s founder and co-owners. There is one definable “sound”, though as with any thinking person’s musical tastes, you can’t pin it down in just a few words. (It’s easier, but unhelpful, to fall back on a U.S. Supreme Court-on-obscenity-style definition: you know it when you hear it.)
In attitude the label is in the tradition of ‘80s and ‘90s independent labels like Sarah Records, Dischord or K — labels where the bands all share some semblance of a common aesthetic, though there’s variety within that. With each label, people know essentially what to expect, and listeners on that same wavelength might have the tendency to become devoted and obsessive, to buy every release, ear unheard. The label’s releases become fetish objects almost; the look is as much a part of the pleasure as the music itself. And the act of collecting might be, too; having a complete Sarah Records or Factory Records collection is like having a treasure trove. Labrador follows that model of a record label, where each release is a labor of love: precious.
The melancholy, sensitive, literary pop music of Sarah Records is definitely a musical touchpoint for the Labrador sound, though not the only one. Others factor into the equation: The stylish, dance-floor friendly music of the ‘80s new wave (and of Saint Etienne, a group evoked often during Labrador 100, by the liner notes and the music), hazy dream-pop (“shoegazers,” but without the stasis often implied by that term), soft-pop love ballads, ‘50s vocal pop. There’s songs that hint of tropicalia, of country, of Motown — but always within that same essential Labrador framework. The hallmark qualities are simplicity, playability, and atmosphere, plus a sense of style and a streak of DIY-style independence.
Acid House Kings
Labrador was born in 1997, in the small town of Ahus, Sweden, the creation of Swedish-pop fan Bengt Rahm, who soon brought into the fold the founders of the Summersound label — Joakim Odlund, brothers Johan and Niklas Angergard — and Mattias Berglund, a graphics designer who gave the releases their own distinctive look. They started with singles and albums by groups they loved — Leslies, Cinnamon, Lasse Lindh — or were members of. Odlund was in Starlet; Johan Angergard in Club 8; Odlund and both Angergards were in Acid House Kings. The latter two groups have both been central figures in the entire, 10-year Labrador discography, along with distinctive singer/songwriter Lasse Lindh.
Over the years more groups joined the family, some briefly and some more permanently. First Floor Power recorded the simple yet unforgettable, completely tale of longing and travel that opens this set, “Car, Travel Far!” [ingenting] joined the label as the first Labrador group to sing in Swedish. Lasse Lindh took his songs in a dancey direction with the duo Tribeca, which recorded memorable songs about the clumsiness of youth like “Teenage” and “Her Breasts Were Still Small.” With Edson and on his own, Pelle Carlberg sang witty story-songs with a smart-ass but still sensitive demeanor. The duo Wan Light lent a Pink Floyd-style otherworldliness to otherwise earthbound songs of everyday life. Hanky and Panky came into the fold for one ridiculous, giddy throwaway pop song called “Hanky and Panky”. Tobias Isaksson wrote countrified indie-pop ballads for Malin Dahlberg of Douglas Heart to sing as Laurel Music, and a few years later emerged from the background as frontman for the beach boys of pop group Irene.
Johan Angergard took his more “rock”-leaning songs that the Acid House Kings didn’t want and formed the Legends. Hot younger groups like The Radio Dept and Suburban Kids With Biblical Names emerged with their own distinct, inclusive styles; The Radio Dept drift about in ways evocative of indescribable beauty and sadness, while the particularly smart Suburban Kids With Biblical Names joke and dance and mystify, promising in one memorable tour song (with an unyielding chorus of “ba ba ba”s) to “turn the dancefloor into a burning inferno of ba-ba-ba”.
All Labrador music — from Club 8’s breezy synth-pop to the updated Britpop-isms of the newest newcomers, the Mary Onettes — sounds like a hit. That is, it has the simplicity, playability and style that are the trademarks of hit records.
Suburban Kids With Biblical Names
These are hits in an aesthetic sense more than an economic one. Take a song like Jacqueline’s “Love Is So Cool (That My Heart Goes Boom)”: not even a blip on the mainstream-pop radar, or much of one on the Labrador radar, even. But the song’s simple, goofy sentiment — the title, essentially — and shyly sexy vocals propel a hook that’s undeniably accessible. Not a dancefloor igniter like Club 8’s “Missing You” or The Legends’ “Play It for Today” (or Tribeca’s “Teenage”, Waltz for Debby’s “He Loves Anna” or several others), nor a sing-and-clap-along-in-the-shower number like Acid House Kings’ “Do What You Wanna Do” or Loveninjas’ “Keep Your Love”… but still, a hit.
The liner-notes conversation with the label owners reveals both a desire for these artists to get widespread recognition and an uncertainty about the prospect of fame. They decry Wan Light’s status as the worst-selling Labrador act while also noting with bewilderment the label’s minor flirtations with celebrity — when Club 8 got Danish radio airplay or Acid House Kings had a song in a Korean Baskin Robbins commercial (starring Drew Barrymore!). In some ways the same wary fascination can be read into the music as well. Place Loveninjas’ celebrity-stalker “I Wanna Be Like Johnny C” next to the Legends’ indie-community anthems, like “Call It Ours”. Both tracks in their own way also exemplify the devotion to pop music that’s on constant display here, between the musical allusions to classic songs and the lyrical testimonies on the power of a song. “This song’s for you / so you can dance the sadness away,” goes a line in Afraid of Stairs’ “Not Today”. “Don’t you try to say it / cause no words will do / we were communicating through the stereo,” is one in Sambassadeur’s “Kate”. And then there’s Ronderlin’s “She Stays at Home”, with its description of hearing a song so beautiful that it stopped time. The liner notes contain numerous recollections of hearing a Labrador song for the first time and being stunned by it, often coupled either with a comparison to a classic of years gone by (by the Pet Shop Boys, say, or Pulp) or the declaration, “this should have been a hit.”
And within Labrador 100, each song stands as a hit, each musician a star. As the playful title A Complete History of Popular Music indicates, the Labrador label represents its own musical universe, with its own legends, its own one-hit wonders, its own up-and-comers.
Of course, in the minds of the label owners, each of these songs is a hit by its very existence. What drives the label is releasing the music they are most excited by. As Odlund states, “When we stop hearing great music, Labrador is no more.”
There is a sense of constant searching here, of seeking the coolest new sound, even if that sound is more recycled and revised than virgin-birth new (but isn’t that always the case, truthfully?). The musicians seem to share that sense of the journey, of finding your own new fashion each season. Each of the three albums by the Legends, for example, has had a significantly different style than the one before. Johan Angergard is quoted in the notes as saying, “I never start recording a new Legends album until I’ve found what it is I want to do.” Likewise, the Radio Dept’s stunning debut of hazy, dreamy guitar pop gave way to a cleaner synth-pop sound the second time around. The same core personality was there, but framed by different light.
It’s fitting that an exclusive track from the Radio Dept. closes the final CD, and again shows the band to be evolving. The synth-dominance is similar to that on their second album Pet Grief, but there’s an unusual reggae lilt to the song. It’s fitting, too, that it’s titled “We Made the Team” — in this corner of the musical universe, it’s not money or fame that matters so much as feeling like you’re part of a team, part of something special.