It's an idea tailor-made for a pop band that hails from a country that spends part of the year bathed in near-perpetual daylight and another part buried in permanent midnight. Before and After, the latest from Swedish power pop quintet/national treasure the Wannadies, seeing light (ha) in America now, after its initial release back in 2002, is not so much a concept album about those two Earth-tilting extremes as it is a two-part soundtrack (just look at the title, fer chrissakes) that celebrates gearing up to have fun and coming down from that high. Alright, so it's not that much of a headscratcher, fraught with symbolism or some eggheaded treatise on the Dionysian vs. the Apollonian ideals, but damned if Before and After isn't a delightful pop confection with no syrupy sweet aftertaste.
Other Scandinavian bands of note lately -- the Hives, the Sounds, etc. -- have played coy with the rock press, claiming American musical influences (like the Stooges and Blondie, respectively, above) took years to hit Nordic shores as an explanation for why their "dated" sound sounds "fresh". As charming and naïve as that tale may be, it certainly doesn't apply to the Wannadies. The band has been honing their power pop vibe and Pixies-esque boy/girl harmnonies for over a decade now, and their sound is as fresh and clean and new fallen snow.
On Before and After, the Wannadies are akin to musical alchemists, taking the elements most likely to rev a listener up for a night of partying -- jangly guitars, keyboards, and Christina Bergmark's honeyed backing vocals that could melt an iceberg (Note to self: Just because a band hails from Sweden, it doesn't mean I must use only cold and snow-based figures of speech) -- and distilling it all into a joyous mishmash of power pop deluxe.
But unlike some current practitioners of power pop, whose music can rot one's teeth with too many listens (I love ya, Fountains of Wayne, but it's true), the Wannadies never resort to treacle. If anything, their closest American cousin is Imperial Teen, minus the homosexual underpinnings. To wit, the shuffling "Piss on You" ("You're not happy til I'm not happy", notes lead singer Pär Wiksten) and the darker, sexy "Skin", which calls to mind the Pixies' "La La Love You". It's good to hear '90s alt-rock is alive and well in 2004.
Of course, much of getting ready to paint the town red -- Before's loose theme -- is all about feeling sexy and the Wannadies capture it perfectly. "Skin" notes, "I love your skin / And what's within", while "All over Me" almost literally oozes sex: "Pour all of you / All over me". Even songs that aren't about the horizontal mambo crawl all over your body, with guitarist Stefan Schonfeldt's guitar digging his guitar hooks into you, regardless of a song's topic (see the inscrutable "Uri Gellar").
If the Wannadies' goal was to get people amped-up for a night of fun with Before, then mission accomplished. It almost goes without saying that they duplicate the feat on After. The facility with which the band changes gears from celebratory to reflecting is nothing short of amazing -- and the whole time they sound just like the Wannadies. Rave-ups like those found on Before have always been the Wannadies' forte on their previous albums, but After's slower songs are no slouches either. "Disko", with its lounge-y vibe and lush strings is an immediate breath-catcher (both in terms of its beauty and its slower pace). There's no air of regret hanging over After, either; no "Boy, did I get shit-faced last night; I'm not doing that again". It's more of a decompression, where one returns to one's senses. Lead singer Wiksten would never be confused with the Kinks' Ray Davies or Blur's Damon Albarn, but on After he shares those Brits' affinity for recounting life's simple pleasures, and he's got just as big a heart as Davies or Albarn. "Singalong Son", the bass-heavy "Happy", and "Come with Me (Til Things Get Better)" are, simply put, utterly charming, gentle pop music. And Love, not Lust, rules After: Album closer "Love Letter" finds Wiksten's narrator listing all the small things his beloved does that endears her to him. Sigh.
One gripe: Discs like Before and After, with their yin and yang, leave one wishing for the self-contained beauty of LPs, with their different sides of the same coin. I don't know if the act of flipping vinyl resets one's internal emotional odometer to 000, but the fact that Before and After runs through its mini mood-makers with no pause in between may be troubling to some ears. That's a minor technological hurdle -- one can always start the After part of the CD at track 7, if one so wishes -- but that cheapens the listening experience. Even something silly like the sound of a vinyl album side ending halfway through the CD, a la Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever or Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, would have been acceptable. Let the fact that the chief complaint with Before and After is with the album's format and not with the songs themselves be its own strong endorsement.