The Sounds finds a delicate balance by balancing their delicacy.
They've got the name the Sounds, they come from Sweden like everyone else, and it took them four years to produce the 35-minute follow-up to their debut album. You can hope that those four years gave the quintet time to invent something original about themselves. They haven't exactly done that, but within their stylistic parameters the band do manage to carve out their own space. And the Sounds aren't just happy about their new material: they're Dying to Say This to You.
The group starts with a basic new wave sound -- jaunty '80s keyboard lines and song sketches that could have turned into bad hair retreads. The Sounds' success on this album comes with the way they rough up these songs for the recordings, primarily by using slightly overdriven guitar to add rowdier hooks. The combination splits the difference between pristine studio musicians and unwashed garage rockers.
Opening track and first single "Song with a Mission" demonstrates the aesthetic at its finest. Maja Ivarsson starts the song by lashing out a "Hey!" with doubled vocals. The jouncy music disguises the vitriol: "You're feeling shitty / I don't fell no pity / Without me you're nothing at all" and "This song is not for you / Only for people living like we do". The guitar's nicely balanced in the background, just enough off clean to add some edge to the song, while allowing the back-up harmonies (which sound like Ivarsson) room to fill the song out with a traditional pop coo. While it's a simple song, the production, primarily by Jeff Saltzman (who did the Killers hit Hot Fuss, places everything in the right spot with an intricacy not always given to pop rock.
The Sounds do walk an edge, though, and they sometimes teeter over. On "24 Hours", the Cars influence comes through a little too heavily. This song could be on the soundtrack to any number of '80s high school films, but never in a memorable sense. You'd watch the credits and see the listing and wonder which one was "24 Hours". The band doesn't help themselves any with writing that includes the opening couplet, "Poor child, handle with care / You fall in love, then you lose your hair". The overly pop and excessively retro sound could work, but it doesn't, and its shimmer sounds exaggerated when mixed in with the rest of the disc.
No matter what happens on any given song (and fortunately there are far more hits than misses here), the Sounds have the advantage of having Ivarsson at the mic. She's got a flexible voice, and a charismatic delivery. Listening to a song like "Painted By Numbers", it's easy to imagine her taking the lead in any setting she finds herself in, whether it's settling a confrontation between rival dancing, headbanded gangs in a breakdancing movie, or striding to the bar in a contemporary punk club. Her voice has a rough edge, and she hits her presentations perfectly even if her notes aren't spot on (and they're more accurate than they have a right to be). With Ivarsson at the front, it's easy to image the Sounds making a good run.
In the middle of the album comes "Night After Night", an odd number in that it's the disc's only piece of balladry, with Ivarsson pushed further to the front, where she struggles to hold her spot (even with her own backing for support). The rawness of her singing voices leads to a tender performance, but also reveals the delicacy of the Sounds' achievement. Left on a stripped-down sound (primarily piano), the song reveals the shortcomings of the group's lyricism, yet the track still works. A little bit worse lyrics or a little more professional singing and it would flounder. This tension gives the Sounds a special edge, but you should perhaps catch them now -- it's imaginable that their career trajectory could take a sharp turn in either direction, and in either case, you want to be able to say you were listening to them back when.