When it comes to shimmering, sugary tunes with irresistible gay appeal, Sweden takes the cake. Now ABBAs descendants, a fresh batch of Scandinavian dancing queens, are swishing their way to the United States. This clutch of clever artists, including electro sibling duo the Knife, as well as two Gothenburg acts, oddball lyricist Jens Lekman, and clubby synth punks the Tough Alliance, are confecting some of the queerest musical fare today.
Persistently press-shy, the mask-wearing pair behind the Knife stayed out of sight for 2003s stellar, steel drumlaced Pass This On, instead recruiting famous Swedish drag queen Rickard Engfors to lip-synch in a dramatic, spellbinding video and live television performance. In his recent hilarious A Postcard to Nina, Lekman poses as his lesbian friend Ninas boyfriend to fool her father, then later writes her an inspiring note with the urgent message Dont let anyone stand in your way. Meanwhile, the Tough Alliances Henning Frst and Eric Berglund conjure Wham! in their dazzling videos for First Class Riot and (especially) A New Chance, in which the twosome share a motor-scooter cruise through a lush landscape and stop to buy a flower-bearing potted plant.
So what spurred this bracing new musical trend? We wanted to express our situation, the Tough Alliances Berglund says, referring to the breezy, homo-romantic imagery in their videos. Two people who like each other a lot, looking for something special beyond this existence, not caring what the rest of the world may think. Lekman explains Gothenburgs recent profusion of bouncy, fey pop as a sort of anticock-rock movement, a reaction against all the horrible masculine rock music infiltrating Sweden from the U.K. and the States. These new acts have taken masculinity in a new, queer direction, he says. The Tough Alliance started off flirting with baseball bats and hooliganism, but the last time I saw them onstage they were hugging and slow-dancing intimately for a whole song -- which was one of the most beautiful things Ive ever seen.
Still not convinced Sweden is where its at for the best in swishy pop music? Check out a dirty dozen oh-so-queer videos from some of Scandinavias finest.
(1) The Knife, Pass This On
Over the span of three albums -- the last being 2006s spooky stunner Silent Shout -- mask-donning brother-sister duo the Knife have accomplished something so rare in music: Theyve remained stubbornly detached (rarely showing their faces to audiences and the press), lyrically enigmatic (is the pair waxing existential or just spinning freakish yarns?), and simply beguiling. Pass This On crams all the Knifes strengths into a creepy, lascivious nutshell. Underpinned by a piercing steel drum melody and swathed in Karin Dreijers distorted, slithery vocals, the song already drips with seduction and mystery. Famous Swedish drag queens Rickard Engforss lithe, captivating interpretation in this video, however, adds a dash of camp to an already near-flawless work. A sinuous coquette in an elegant turquoise dress mouthing the words Im in love with your brother and seducing a lodge-full of pokerfaced men makes it all the more cheeky, fearless, and baffling. Where the hell is this brave artiste anyway? A remote rehab center? A veterans association meeting?
(2) Robyn, With Every Heartbeat
Once a formulaic, though successful, pop princess, Robyn grew tired of having to make music by the textbook and transformed herself into the CEO of her own Konichiwa Records in 2004. A year later she released her eponymous DIY debut -- a gutsy, unfettered electro-pop album so worthy its already racked up three Swedish Grammys and a number one U.K. single, With Every Heartbeat -- arguably the best breakup song to hit the dance floor in years. The albums U.S. release is April 29. [Read Out.com's interview with Robyn here.]
(3) Jens Lekman, A Postcard to Nina
One of the most literary, literal, and lovable performers to emerge last year, Lekman is a droll raconteur (like Stephin Merritt), a sucker for baroque (like Rufus Wainwright), and a wry, lovesick fool (like Morrissey). Yet no recent song tackling gay subject matter quite unfolds like his twinkling tale A Postcard to Nina (from Night Falls Over Kortedala). Based on a real-life predicament, the track features protagonist Lekman posing as his lesbian gal pal Ninas boyfriend to trick her conservative father. The resulting awkward moments (e.g., sneaky eye signals over dinner, conflicting stories, fake out-of-office replies) are recounted so vividly that youre bound to crack a smile, but its the uplifting, soaring denouement -- in which Lekman writes Nina a postcard, urging her to just be herself -- that lingers.
(4) The Sounds, Painted By Numbers
Fronted by the scorching Maja Ivarsson, The Sounds' two studio albums -- Living in America and Dying to Say This to You -- were critical hits. But it's the band's incessant touring (they played more than 200 dates in 2006 alone) that earned them a huge following. If it's possible to capture a tiny taste of their energetic, electric live sets, "Painted By Numbers" comes close, demonstrating Maja and her merry band's sleek good looks and relentless rocking. [Read Out.com's interview with Maja here.]
(5) The Tough Alliance, A New Chance
Electro-pop punks Eric Bergland and Henning Frst (a.k.a. the Tough Alliance) are not lovers, but this video allows you to craft your own homo-romantic fantasy about them. The duo -- Jens Lekmans favorite Swedish band -- cruises blithely through a verdant landscape on a motor scooter, one embracing the other as they head to a place where diamonds never fade away, as the vocals declare. At one point they even stop to pick up a blossoming potted plant, while sparkling 80s keyboards, catchy bass lines, and animal hoots propel them on their carefree journey. Not since Andy Bell and Vince Clarke have two blokes created such heartfelt, harmonious pop. Give these boys a little respect.
(6) Sally Shapiro, Jackie Jackie
The new queen of the Italo Disco movement -- by way of Sweden -- is actually a duo featuring Shapiro (not her real name) on vocals and Johan Agebjrn on production. Though the singer has been fairly press shy, she has no problem slamming her whispery vocals all over Agebjrns mesmerizing euro-beats. Hold Me So Tight brings to mind spring break at sunset; He Keeps Me Alive is electro-charged with unrequited longing; and the video for Jackie Jackie (below) features a muppet of a boy so swept up in Sally that he turns a mop into a wig and runs wild with his wannabe fantasies. Weve all been there.
(7) The Embassy, It Never Entered My Mind
In this clip the Embassy try to get all elusive and creepy (e.g., lurking behind doors; caressing carpet beneath a couch; hiding in kitchen drawers and trunks), but the handsome Gothenburg duos plinky, self-described underclass disco is instantly inviting. You quickly get past the videos Japanese horror flick ambience because youre too busy telling yourself how frickin much this song reminds you of New Orders 1963. Its no wonder their debut, Futile Crimes, was voted the third best record of the 21st century by 100 Swedish people. Much like the great music of their aforesaid forbears, this is perfect synth-pop suffused with tension and melancholy.
(8) The Honeydrips, (Lack of Love) Will Tear Us Apart
Yep, thats a blatant nod to Joy Division, but Gothenburg-based songwriter Mikael Carlsson (who released his latest album, Here Comes the Future, under the moniker the Honeydrips) actually relies on the recipe for success that worked for more danceable pop-rock acts like, well, New Order: aching guitars, emphatic bass, and a healthy, strangely charming dose of despair and death. Theres something so refreshingly 1990 about this video that youll want to hunt down those scratchy old Soul II Soul and Jesus Jones LPs youd forgotten about. Irresistible euro-house programming and a grilling "Under Pressure"-like riff introduce the song, and when Hanna Gransons gossamer vocals arrive (Are you even listening? she coos sadly to her drifting lover), youre locked in for the rapturous two and a half minutes that follow.
(9) Air France, Beach Party
Air France are not from France (theyre Swedes, obviously), but their buoyant song Beach Party couldnt have a more fitting title. You can practically feel the sand between your toes and taste the salty sweetness of a frosted margarita when the tracks gurgling waves, conga drums, and breezy electronics kick in, and if that doesnt snare you, then the fine sample of Lisa Stansfields 1989 gem All Around the World certainly will. Not finding your baby shouldnt feel this invigorating, but were thrilled it does.
(10) As In RebekkaMaria, "Yours Truly"
Leaving behind the guitar-drenched landscape of her former band the Lampshades, RebekkaMaria Andersson returned draped in slutty, come-hither bass lines for her solo project, As In RebekkaMaria. The dance tracks on her new album, Queen of France, writhe and skitter and have just enough kookiness to keep you guessing while you stay hot and bothered. Imagine Marie Antoinette visiting from beyond the grave via Oujia-turn table and commanding, Let them eat break-beats.
(11) Studio, West Coast (promotion video)
Not only have trance disciples Studio (Dan Lissvik and Rasmus Hag) revamped Kylie Minogues already groovy 2 Hearts, but the experimental pair evokes Can, the Cure, and the Clash as they dip in and out of the shadows in percolating tracks like West Side and the 13-minute Lifes a Beach. The sliding guitar lines and syncopated percussion on their album Yearbook 1 actually resemble the ebb and flow of the tides, producing a flickering, hypnotic, after-hours-beach-bonfire effect.
(12) El Perro del Mar, "God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)"
The perfect tonic for a midday slump, Sarah Assbring's whimsical, bittersweet "God Knows" teaches us it's OK to be a bit bummed or brokenhearted because, darn it, we have colorful balloons, cute little birdies, and twirling Busby Berkeley dance numbers to lift us from even the rock-bottom moments. This adorable animated video features all that, plus '60s girl-group harmonies, jangling tambourines, and lush strings. Pick up El Perro del Mar's new album, From the Valley to the Stars, April 22.
Additional reporting by Noah Michelson.