Friday 24 November 2017

Swede smell of success

It's still only September but when it comes to summarising 2010 in music, it looks like being the year of the Swedes. It's usually compulsory in articles like these to shoehorn in references to flat-pack furniture mega-stores, ABBA, Saab cars, Stieg Larsson novels, Wallander, Mamma Mia: The Musical, and Thomas Brolin's winning goal against England in Euro 1992 -- but I'd never stoop to such lazy tactics here.

However, if I were to make a list of the artists who've lit up 2010 for me so far, then the roll call would be weighted in favour of this particular corner of Scandinavia.

The most recent example was last weekend's Electric Picnic, where Fever Ray's mesmerising performance in the Electric Arena was my musical highlight of the event -- and probably the best thing I've seen all year.

Mixing elements of theatre, performance art, avant-garde installations and a sci-fi laser light show, Fever Ray built up an air of Gothic mystery and sustained it for a whole hour -- not least because no one in the audience got a good look at vocalist Karin Dreijer Andersson for the whole show.

Standing in the shadows, half hidden by the shroud of dry ice that intermittently covered the stage, Andersson was every bit the anti-pop star: avoiding the spotlight as if in the belief that catching any rays might make her melt like the Wicked Witch.

Like Bjork's evil twin, she exuded the faintly menacing air of a High Priestess presiding over a black mass of fantastically doomy, moody electro-noir.

And I haven't even mentioned the dozens of synchronised blinking lamps, which resembled a DIY store in the grip of a pesky poltergeist.

And to think this is only Andersson's side project -- earlier this year, her primary band The Knife released a concept album that acted as the soundtrack to an opera about Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Titled Tomorrow, In A Year, it is a musical approximation of the development of life, starting with minimalist atonal bleeps signifying the emergence of amoeba right through to a full-on bells-and-whistles soundclash celebrating the thrum of humanity.

Now, fans who found their way to The Knife via Jose Gonzalez's majestic cover of their song 'Heartbeats' -- used so effectively on a Sony Brava TV ad -- may be nonplussed by such a left turn, but you have to admire the lengths that Andersson's brother Olof went to by way of research -- attending workshops in the Amazon jungle about gathering found sounds.

Another absolute highlight of the Electric Picnic was the irrepressible Robyn, who by year's end will have released three new albums under the umbrella name of Body Talk.

The Stockholm popette's set was rapturously received and she has already garnered four-star reviews for the second Body Talk instalment which has just been released. Harking back to the glory days of 1980s synth-pop (Human League, Pet Shop Boys) Robyn has a voice that oozes personality. She appears to have shed the little-girl-lost sensibility and become a more mature, commanding presence -- having set up her own label, Robyn now has complete artistic control over her work, unlike before, where Sweden's Louis-like pop Svengalis had a big say.

Indeed, she has even roped in that irascible rogue Snoop Dogg for a duet, making complete chart domination a distinct possibility.

Pushing both these ladies for gig of the year is Gothenburg's Jens Lekman, whose live show in Whelans this summer was a perfect harmony of stagecraft and songcraft.

A semi-uniformed all-girl backing band of multi-instrumentalists helped make it the most exuberant night out since Sufjan Stevens last blew through town chucking blow-up Santas and Superman dolls into the crowd.

Lekman's latest MP3 download, 'The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love', was written when he was nursing a broken heart in New York, which coincided with the election of Barack Obama as US President.

He says he suddenly realised that his romantic travails didn't amount to a hill of beans compared to the momentous historical event that was unfolding from sea to shining sea.

The other new songs that Lekman unveiled were of such quality, I have been driven to pining quietly in the corner for the new album.

As for the pop mainstream, turn on MTV or walk into any nightclub and you will hear the work of producer/songwriter to the stars, Martin Sandberg -- aka Max Martin -- who along with fellow Scandinavian Rami Yacoub, has helped sculpt the sound of modern pop.

This year alone, Sandberg has penned or co-penned five top 10 singles, including 'Dynamite' by Taio Cruz, 'DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love' by Usher, 'Whataya Want From Me' by Adam Lambert, as well as 'California Gurls' and 'Teenage Dream' by Katy Perry.

But perhaps his most famous client is the one and only Britney Spears, for whom he has (co) written many of her most popular songs ('Oops . . . I Did It Again'; 'Baby One More Time'). His musical ubiquity is all the more notable for his relative personal anonymity.

So to our list of all things compellingly Swedish, we must add the names of the stars of 2010: The Knife, Fever Ray, Robyn, Jens Lekman and, yes, Max Martin and friends.

Irish Independent

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