ABBA is only the A and B of Swedish rock

September 17, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It's all ABBA's fault.

For some reason, whenever Americans put the words "Swedish" and "rock" together, all they can come up with is ABBA. Never mind that Ace of Base and Roxette have long since topped ABBA's success record; as far as most Americans are concerned, half the people in Stockholm still wander the streets singing "Fernando."

So maybe we ought to put a couple of misconceptions to rest for good. First, Swedes are not totally ABBA-crazed. On a recent visit to Sweden, the only evidence I saw of lingering ABBA-mania came on a TV show called "Smastjarnona" ("The Little Stars"), which features children lip-syncing to records while dressed up like the original artists.

This particular show opened with a pre-pubescent quartet doing -- who else? -- ABBA. Although their rendition of "Waterloo" was adorable, it was only good enough for third place that night, as a pint-sized John Lennon and a mini-MTV version of Green Day took top honors. Clearly, Sweden has gotten over its ABBA fixation.

And for good reason. Right now, Sweden has one of the strongest pop music scenes in Europe. A lot of that has to do with Ace of Base, whose debut album, "The Sign," produced three of America's 10 best-selling singles for 1994. As a Swedish newspaper story boasted, Ace of Base is one of the biggest industries in their hometown of Gothenburg, a city otherwise known as the home of Volvo.

Ace of Base is hardly the only Swedish act making waves in the music world. Rednex, a semi-parodic dance act that mix bluegrass with techno and appear in public dressed like a touring company for "The Beverly Hillbillies," have put two singles into the European Top 10 this summer: a rave-style remake of "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and a melancholy ballad called "Wish You Were Here." Unfortunately, the group's album, "Sex & Violins" (Battery 46000), has not enjoyed similar success on this side of the Atlantic.

For a time, Roxette seemed the great blond hope of Swedish pop, having enjoyed enormous international success with its albums "Look Sharp!" and "Joyride." But things have not been going as well for the group in recent years, particularly in America. Although "Crash Boom Bang" sold well in Europe, it was released late (and with little fanfare) in the United States, and the group's "MTV Unplugged" episode never aired here.

No wonder, then, that there are currently no plans to release "Roxette Rarities" (Swedish Import, EMI 32277) in America. A shame, because not only does it include several selections from the "MTV Unplugged" performance (including a tasty remake of "The Look"), but its blend of demos, alternate mixes and non-LP material is further testament to both Per Gessle's pop smarts and the power of Marie Fredriksson's voice.

Meanwhile, on the rock front, Whale has managed to amuse and befuddle with its first album, "We Care" (Virgin 40560). Best known for the cult single "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe," Whale specializes in good-natured outrageousness, approaching everything from casual sex to accidental death with the same goofy aplomb.

In other words, Whale doesn't seem to take anything seriously. A lot of that stems from singer Cia Berg, who got her start making prank phone calls for a Stockholm morning radio show (yes, the "morning zoo" format is international in its appeal); in her hands, even the most scandalous lyrics seem playful, an endearing mix of put-on and come-on. (I'd offer examples, but this is a family newspaper.)

Even better, the band backs her naughty singing with a sloppy, garage-band take on dance rock that's as catchy as it is casual. At its best, as on songs like "Pay for Me," "I'll Do Ya" and "Kickin'," Whale comes across like the unexpected spawn of Cracker and Hole -- great stuff, even if it is too risque for radio.

Far more radio-friendly (though as yet without U.S. distribution) are the Cardigans. This quintet was a big success at Britain's Reading Festival this year, and after spending some time with the group's latest album, "Life" (Swedish Import, Trampolene 1502/527 284), it's not hard to hear why.

Resolutely tuneful and engagingly stylish, the Cardigans are a classic post-modern pop act, happily ransacking the past to assemble the perfect cocktail of sound and attitude. Sift through the songs on "Life," and you'll hear echoes of everything from Blondie-ish surf rock ("Fine") to Aztec Camera-style guitar pop ("Gordon's Garden Party"). But because no one influence ever dominates, what we're left with is a sound both familiar and new, putting the Cardigans on a par with the equally chic Pizzicato Five.

Back seat to dance music

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