You're probably not going to hear much serious talk from music critics about a "Swedish Invasion." Unlike their Viking forebears, Swedes just aren't invaders, as at least the last few centuries attest.
And though a great deal of wonderful music is filtering out of ABBAland, it's not necessarily of the chart-pillaging, ultra-commercial variety.
So let's talk about the Swedish infiltration – notably new CDs from two extremely promising bands that have crossed my desk in the last month.
Indie-pop outfit Shout Out Louds blend punk energy and a flair for melancholy melodies on their extremely appealing new disc, "Howl Howl Gaff Gaff" (Capitol). Despite their name, these Swedes do very little shouting – indeed, the band's charm tends to make itself heard sotto voce. But by building their songs around quiet moments, they give their boosts in volume real power.
It's no surprise that the quintet – fronted by 26-year-old singer-guitarist Adam Olenius – made the last Coachella lineup and is slated to tour with critically admired bands Kings of Leon and Secret Machines. Since their first strums in 2002 – when Olenius and company demoed their early songs with a drum machine that mostly played bossa nova beats – they've collected reams of praise. Once they had a real drummer, Shout Out Louds were unstoppable.
The songs on "Howl Howl" show not only a firm grasp of songcraft but a mastery of pop dynamics. The waves of feedback on the heartsick "Very Loud" stream over a foundation of folky guitar arpeggios, nicely conveying lost love's mixed emotions of rage and tenderness. "Oh, Sweetheart" has a shaggy, '60s-infused bounce that gives way, in the choruses, to a haunted, elegant mist of synthesized strings. The glockenspiel, desultory guitar riff and hushed vocals on "A Track and a Train" pay tuneful tribute to the Velvet Underground. Even when they kick up the tempo, as on "Please Please Please," Olenius and company manage to convey quiet desperation. Special credit goes to keyboardist Bebban Stenborg, whose thoughtful countermelodies add both hooks and mood.
I'm aware that sleigh bells, minimalist drums and doped-out heartbreak aren't exactly rare commodities on the indie-pop scene. But the band uses these stylistic tools to create memorably bittersweet songs.
Though a veil of mystery surrounds much of the music on "Howl Howl Gaff Gaff," Shout Out Louds sing entirely in English. Their compatriots in the band Dungen (pronounced "doon-yen") do not.
Even if I don't know what all the lyrics mean, I can usually divine a few phrases in Spanish, French or German songs.
It would serve me right if all the songs were about gravlax or Volvos.But I don't know a word of Swedish – which makes the band's new album, "Ta Det Lugnt" (Kemado), a purely musical experience.
Well, I do know a couple of Swedish words now, thanks to the PR materials that accompany the disc. I'm told that Dungen means "copse" (a small grove grown from suckers or sprouts) and that the album's title means "Grab the Calm."
You might gather from such translations that Dungen's music is of a pastoral, even sleepy nature – in which case you'd be in for a surprise. "Lugnt" is a sprawling, ambitious work of psychedelia that recalls early Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Os Mutantes, Can and other unhinged, symphonic rock. Not that the sylvan echoes in the band's name don't make themselves felt – there are passages of lush, verdant beauty reminiscent of classic English folk – but Dungen is by no means background music.
The man behind the band is the precocious 24-year-old composer-musician Gustav Ejstes. A native of a village called Lanna, he learned music at the feet of his violinist-teacher father. Later on, he lived at his mother's forested home. But wherever he went, he taught himself to play every instrument in sight – including guitar, bass, drums and piano.
Ejstes' free-ranging sonic ambitions are inspiring – if at times a bit wearying. The disc kicks off with a shambling drum fill and a squall of feedback before Ejstes digs into the weirdly anthemic melody of "Panda." There's an element of the manifesto to almost every syllable he sings, though I have no idea what he's saying. It would serve me right if all the songs were about gravlax or Volvos.
But as I pondered the possible translation of the lyrics – between fusillades of space-jazz guitar and circa-1969 drum breaks – it occurred to me that this is how most of the world experiences Anglo-American pop. What's more, the mystery obscuring the "meaning" of the songs deepens their mood; Dungen conjures a dream state with every stately, acid-soaked wah-wah riff and echo-drenched refrain.
At times, Ejstes strays too far into this forest of his own creation, and the music becomes an overwhelming slog of hippie-rock noodling. But in general – especially on the impossibly gorgeous "Festival," the intoxicating "Du e för fin för mig" and "Solen stiger upp," with its Jethro Tull-inspired flute break – these Swedes have created an incredibly tripped-out record that's far more than mere aural furniture.