06 March 2010

Best of 2009: Best Compilation or Sampler

And the winner is:
Swedes Do It Better - A Labrador Records Compilation

I am a well-known sucker for Scottish pop groups going way back, but I’ve been less quick to acknowledge my love of Swedish pop, much of which is just fantastic and certainly as worthy of my affections as those pasty-faced, haggis-eating Albans.

This goes way back to ABBA, but has been maintained over the decades; from the soulful blues-rock of The Creeps to that one song by Rednex (“Cotton-Eyed Joe,” remember that?) and more recently the swing-pop of Cloudberry Jam and the genre-hopping genius of Komeda, among others – Sweden puts out a lot of really fine music!

Lately, however, the full blossom of college-rock style indie-pop has flowered in that lovely land, and there’s a sled-load of lovely music is coming out of the home of the Nobel prize, much of which can be handily enjoyed on the latest compilation/sampler from Labrador Records, Swedes Do It Better.

I was first attracted to this release by the presence of Sambassadeur, whom I’ve raved about in this space previously, and indeed their two contributed tracks continue to demonstrate why I love them; “Subtle Changes” is an example of their newest, more lush sounds (complete with middle-eight sax solo!), but “Between the Lines” has a lot of the poppy-Velvet-Underground influence they started with and have built on since.

The Mary Onettes
A trio of other bands on this record have, since its release this past August, caught the ear of college radio programmers; The Mary Onettes, who lead off with a very Pains of Being Pure At Heart-meets-The Church track called “Lost,” and also offer a similar song with a lot more Cure influence called “Dare”; The Radio Dept. who give us two very good songs, the lo-fi “Pulling Our Weight” and the dancey “David”; and finally the Acid House Kings who throw in a single track, the jaunty little girly-pop swinger “This Heart is a Stone,” which would not have been at all out of place on a Petula Clark record. If the Shout Out Louds had been included I’d have said this was a comprehensive look at the state of pop music in Sweden this year, but alas they are on another label.

But that’s not to say the name bands are the only good stuff on here. Basically, all of it’s pretty good -- with some inexplicable bad noise (mastering error?) on a couple of tracks (“Seconds Away” from The Legends, which ends up being pretty unlistenable – and yes, I checked my copy against the one on iTunes, and South Ambulance’s too-lo-fi-for-their-own-good “Die Times Five” which is a funny number if you can hear it through the buzz). I haven’t got a physical copy to check, but hopefully its not present there.

After the Mary Onettes and Sambassadeur weigh in, the third track from The Sound of Arrows is a dancey, simple, Pet-Shop-Men-Without-Hats “M.A.G.I.C,” which I can totally see on a “Kid Pop” type compilation – maybe even They Might Be Giants covering it.

We get a little bit of curveball on the fourth track – Club 8’s “Jesus Walk With Me,” which Tracey Thorn should seriously think about nicking, as its exactly the kind of stuff she does so very, very well – the soft ballad with a twist. Note-perfect too. Maybe something The Beautiful South would have done when Jacqui Abbott was with them.

Track 7 (“I Wanna Be Like Johnny C” from the Loveninjas) takes a definite New Wave turn with so many obvious 80s influences my mind reels, but you can throw everything from the Jesus and Mary Chain to Julie Brown (the funny one) to that guy who yelled “Leave Britney ALONE!!” on YouTube and one ends up with something that could have been on the “Warriors” soundtrack … or something.

Little Big Adventure are up next with the very Mates of State-ish “Happiest Times,” which has just laughably bad lyrics such as “Now you’re fine, and I am also fine (I think)” and a chorus of “My stomach hurts and my head hurts.” It really does sound like the lyrics were written by an upset 14 year old on the bus to junior high. It probably would have sounded better in Swedish, quite frankly, but the singer isn’t terribly good and relies on that awful “recorded via phone line” effect too many bands today use as a crutch (for no reason I can see). This is definitely a very amateurish attempt, but its still kinda charming for anyone who’s seen as many local bands as I have. :)

Pelle Carlberg
Pelle Carlburg sets us back on track with his polished piss-take on “1983 (Pelle and Sebastian)” which mocks the fey Scots just perfectly both musically and lyrically. Now I love B&S, but this wonderful little story-song is both comic parody and a strong entry in its own right – masterful.

“1983” by Pelle Carlburg

The halfway point is a obvious James homage by a group called Ingenting called “Halleuja!” There’s not much more to say about it – if you remember James and liked that sort of thing, here’s some more of it. Luckily, I do happen to like James.

Pallers kick off the second half with “Humdrum,” a modest lo-fi electronic effort that is perfectly serviceable but doesn’t really stand out, rather like The Orb or The Beloved – something you’ll like but utterly unmemorable and unmoving.

Then comes the bouncy 60s groove of The Legends with “Call It Ours,” which again relies too much on affected lo-fi, but apart from that is indistinguishable from one of those time-filler songs The Banana Splits used to do. Imagine a fashionably-dressed band of madcap mop-tops running around a field with zany camera angles and you’ve got it.

A more firmly 80s post-punk take on Disco – something you might think Modest Mouse or Franz Ferdinand would have cooked up – arrives via Suburban Kids With Biblical Names and their song “1999.” The closest thing you’ll find here to Cloudberry Jam, it’s a jolly dance number with vocal fun to spare and enjoyable with a side of irony.

The Acid House Kings keep things swinging with their softer but poppy “This Heart is a Stone,” one of the several standout tracks here. Even if I was being merciless, I’d still keep 12-15 of the songs on this comp, which is a mighty high hit-to-miss ratio.

The Mary Onettes return on track 15 with “Dare,” a very Echo-and-the-Cure-y-men sort of affair. I wouldn’t think this would cut it as a single, but people who enjoyed the classic sounds of the 80s will enjoy the “comfort food” aspect of this band’s sound.

The aforementioned South Ambulance’s “Die (x5)” is a grin-inducing breakup song, rather amateurishly done – one could easily imagine it having been primarily recorded in a bedsit – but still loaded with that charming roughness of college rock.

I should note that adding to the informal atmosphere is the varying production and the fact that most of these songs sit will under the three-minute mark – only three surpass 4:00. In part this is due to the obvious influence of early rock songwriting (particularly the early-to-mid 60s whose style is all over this movement), but it also reflects the changing reality of non-mainstream music that’s taken from the punk and ska music – get your idea out quickly, make your point and go.

The group IRENE (yes, all caps) with the penultimate track “Baby I Love Your Way,” are perhaps the most obvious example, with their Bacharach-Meets-Beach-Boys swing (marred only by a strangely inappropriate baritone lead that sounds way too Vegas for my liking). It’s probably intentionally cheesy, and the whole thing’s over in 2:12 flat.

The mismatched singer thing continues to the finale, Wan Light’s “That Grim Reality,” where the falsetto male turns what would have otherwise been a Martin Gore-esque tender ballad into a Bonzo Dog Band oddity. If the last two bands had swapped singers, both songs would have probably been fine. Pity.

Anyway, this is easily the highest-quality “label comp” I’ve come across in (literally) decades, and so it beats out the Arts & Crafts sampler (despite A&C being Canadian and having the wonderful Hidden Cameras on it and being free!) to win the category of Best Compilation 2009. It’s available on iTunes for a mere $5.99 (30 cents per song if you prefer!), and I recommend it highly. You’ll get at least one new “OMG favourite band evurrrr” out of it.


Ron Kane said...


chas_m said...

Oh, you KNOW that's where my love of bands Swedish started out. What an amazing group, still need to collect all their stuff in one place.