Scandinavia. It's the new Seattle/Manchester/Austin/Ibiza. The Hives broke down the door that the Cardigans politely propped open in the mid '90s. Soon after, residents in the Stockholm and Oslo areas complained about heavy machinery operating at all hours of the night. Investigators later discovered it was the music industry machine, strip mining all level earth in order to find the Next Big Swede.
Rainbow Quartz Records may not be a major industry player, but they are part of the machine nonetheless, and they enter the fray with hedged bets, signing two Norwegian bands and one Swedish band (their press sheet dubs them the Scandinavian 3) and releasing all three records within a span of three weeks. It's a low risk, low reward strategy, which makes perfect sense for a label with an equally low profile. It makes even more sense when you take into account the quality of the product. My colleagues will tell you about the Norwegians. I'm tackling the lone Swedes.
The Rhinos, a quintet led by guitarist Lasse Hindberg, is described in their press kit as a blend of Byrds-style guitars with Hollies-esque vocals. The description couldn't be more apt: jangly 12 string guitars anchor every song, with cascades of harmonies floating dreamily on top. The biggest problem is that their album, Year of the Rhinos, sounds so, so much like those bands -- the former in particular -- that there's no real reason to listen to the Rhinos instead of the Hollies or the Byrds. They're like the ultimate Byrds tribute band, which shows a disturbing pattern. Fellow Swedes the Merrymakers were the ultimate Jellyfish tribute band, and the Hives aren't exactly reinventing the wheel. It is quite possible that the last truly inventive Swedish band was ABBA.
The Rhinos are certainly not misguided or wrong to admire either the Byrds or the Hollies. Both bands are supremely talented, and a slew of great pop songs from the last 10 years steal liberally from both bands (Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting", Aimee Mann's "Could've Been Anyone" and "Fifty Years After the Fair"). The trick, though, is to take those styles and put your own spin on it. The Rhinos have not yet learned this lesson. They have the sound down pat, but have yet to inject any personality into the songs that would make someone ask, "Hey, is this the Rhinos?" Nicking the "Eight Miles High" signature riff at the end of "No Win Situation" does not help matters, either.
If the Rhinos want to take their brand of Rickenbacker thievery to the next level, they would be wise to follow the formula used by the Lolas, a California band that borrows shamelessly from the Beatles, the Monkees, the Stones Roses, Oasis, and anyone else they can get their hands on. What makes the Lolas rise above tribute band status is their excellent songcraft and loads of energy, two key elements that Year of the Rhinos is missing. It's not that Hindberg is a bad songwriter so much as that he's not a particularly engaging one. Perhaps he was so wrapped up in recreating the sound that he lost sight of the tunes. In either case, he'd be well served to put down Sweetheart of the Rodeo for a while and pop in the Lolas' Silver Dollar Sunday, which, for the record, contains a killer Byrds tribute of its own called "Who Am I Talking To". Two spins of that record, and a slight change in their execution, would do the Rhinos a world of good.