Ah, Sweden. Home of high taxes, red candy fish, universal healthcare, Bergman, and heavy drinking. Every year my high school would host two Swedish students -- probably, like everything else at that school, motivated by a desire to improve our all-state hockey team. In addition to being good at hockey and random things like orienteering, the Swedes impressed us with their flawless English and encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture. However, unlike their Phish-loving, Neanderthal American teammates, the Swedes were also possessed of a remarkable emotional intelligence and confidence. I'll never forget the Swedish star of the hockey team getting up in front of a whole school assembly to regale us with a jazz flute rendition of the traditional folksong "Santa Lucia", while the rest of us choked on our hot buns.
Sweden's latest export, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, isn't really new at all. It was formed in 1994 out of the ashes of Union Carbide Productions, a band Steve Albini produced and Sonic Youth and the Jesus Lizard loved. The Warner International website seems to attribute Union Carbide's demise to poor label representation (and it is true that a 1990 deal with Sub Pop never materialized), but I think that's just propaganda. It is true that The Soundtrack of Our Lives is rather a grown up version of its previous incarnation, with all the musical adjustments that come with aging and major label worldwide distribution.
Moreover, Björn Olsson, the John to Ebbot Lundberg's Paul, has left the band and taken with him the venom that characterized TSOOL's first two albums. The result is a band that can no longer be fairly compared to the Stooges. What they do sound like is a crazy, Scandinavian mixture of just about everything else in pop music, from the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac to Tears for Fears to Bad Company. Seriously. I don't mean to say that each song has its own genre. I mean it's a mix, a thickly textured panoply of influence blended to perfection: not so much so that you'd miss the individual flavors, but definitely a sound of its own. I think the best way to characterize the uniqueness of the sound is the emotional honesty and openness, not just of the lyrics, but of the unironic and lusty way these guys go after their sound. This isn't retro, or vintage, or nouveau traditional. Just plain old North Sea rawk.
Behind The Music is only the first of a double album -- and the band originally wanted to debut on Warner with a box set. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that meeting! But when you think about the long history of this band, a box set does not seem all that inappropriate.
Swedish popular music has been long relegated to the backstage of the American and British scene -- "behind the music", if you will (which is of course a lovely pun on the popular VH-I series). I can't think of any more worthy fellows to storm the stage than these exuberant and seasoned veterans.