If I have to tell you how large a role Sweden has played in shaping America's musical landscape over the last half decade or so, then you're either deaf or don't care about such things anyway. Suffice it to say that from anarchist hardcore to garage-rock to songs by platinum prefab pop idols, that country's sonic exports have impacted every stratum of our nation's listening audience.
Those of us who comb the rock press have endured punny titles (I've seen "How Swede It Is" about 100 times now; it may have even been attached to one of my columns, God help me), needlessly clever asides regarding Swedish fish (the original gummi, dontchaknow), and snide references to ABBA for far too long. So long, in fact, that the next hip, shiny thing to come out of Sweden might be greeted with as much malaise as hype, a forced yawn at yet another cool band toward the end of the line of cool bands in this particular trend.
Which would suck, because the next hip, shiny thing to come out of Sweden is The Sounds. And not only are they good, but they are also offering up something fairly original — for this decade, anyway.
"It's a great thing in the beginning, people say 'oh, it's a new Swedish band,'" says Sounds keyboardist Jesper Anderberg. "But it's kind of boring to always hear this. Before The Sounds came, there was Sahara Hotnights, The Hives, it's always the same thing.
"But that's something you learn, playing music. Every journalist writes the same thing about you. The Blondie concept, the Swedish trend. But I don't think it's a bad thing to be compared with Swedish bands, and there are a lot of Swedish bands coming after us, I think."
Anderberg's "Blondie concept" has dogged the wonderfully dated young quintet through virtually every feature written since their stateside debut, Living in America, was released in May. It goes something like this: Rock critic sees hot, sassy young blonde woman standing in front of four skinny, disaffected dudes with big earrings, leather jackets and funny haircuts. (To be fair, the rock critic also sees the black-and-white image of the band on the CD's cover, in which vocalist Maja Ivarsson looks, interestingly enough, far more like Deborah Harry than she really does, which is not much.) Rock critic hears scrappy, upbeat pop-rock, heavy on hummable synthesizer melodies, raw, punky guitars and rhythms made for both pogo-ing and hilarious '80s white- people dancing. Rock critic reaches just far enough into his accumulated knowledge to retrieve the most obvious and widely resonant comparison, irrespective of its accuracy.
So is Blondie the monster influence on Anderberg, Ivarsson, guitarist Felix Rodriguez, bassist Johan Bengtsson, and drummer Fredrik Nilsson that most American articles suggest it to be?
"Absolutely not. Myself, I don't have one thing of Blondie's; neither does Felix or Johann," says Anderberg with a laugh. "We don't listen to it, though I like their music, they have some really good songs. The thing we liked about the '80s sound was the melodies. They were very catchy and easy to sing along with, and people have a good time."
Therein lies the key to The Sounds' style, and the reason why people so readily associate it with everything from Blondie to Missing Persons (a band Anderberg says he's never heard). They sound like no one '80s band in particular as much as they sound like the ideal New Wave outfit. It's the sound of the listeners' memories and impressions of the genre mixed with hearing every element, cliché and guilty pleasure perfectly presented. If pressed, this writer would place The Sounds somewhere equidistant from Kim Wilde's populist anthemia and Bow Wow Wow's sexily postured rebellion — which is to say, approximately where all of New Wave's many lines converge.
But that doesn't really do the quintet justice, either. On the surface, Living in America is packed with lightweight, bouncy rave-ups that are perfect for pop culture-devouring girls, and just raw enough for the guys that want to do those girls. Repeated listens, however, reveal subtle nuances and myriad inspirations. "Dance with Me" and "Mine for Life," for instance, evoke the influence of European club-techno most often associated stateside with gay danceterias. And "Rock 'N' Roll" showcases a compelling darker side of the band's persona.
Then there's the widely misconstrued lyrical content of the album's title track, which many infer to be a slam directed at America. The Sounds expected such a response; in fact, according to Anderberg, they expected a bigger uproar than they actually got.
"I thought people would be more upset than they are, but I guess I was wrong," he says. "People understand that it's not America's fault, it's more how every guy 15 to 20 years old, around the world, only consumes American stuff. I thought the reaction would be even worse ... [even though] we're not a political band."
Still, it's pretty deep stuff from a band that, at first listen, might sound interested only in moving you, loving you, dancing with you, and generally doing stuff with you that makes you smile. But for better or for worse, they're the next hip, shiny Swedish thing, and as such will generally be covered in the press as if the music really isn't that substantial, and thus unimportant.
What's important, we seem to say, are the peripherals. Like how The Sounds were "discovered" by former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha and signed to his ultra-cool Scratchie Records imprint (Fountains of Wayne's original home). Or how much Maja Ivarsson really should remind everybody of a young Debbie Harry. Or, as every piece written on the band goes out of its way to remind you, that it's a Sounds shirt Dave Grohl is wearing in the Foo Fighters' "Times Like These" video.
"I don't care, really," says Anderberg with a dismissive sigh that says he's already used to it. "But it's more fun if they talk about the music instead of the T-shirt."
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].