April 25, 2006

The Sounds bring a new kind of “Dancing Queen” to town with their pop-punk

Say the word “Sweden” and all sorts of images come to mind: Vikings, Pippi Longstocking, Ingmar Bergman, attractive blonds, an unappealing caviar paste my friend likes to eat from a tube, and, of course, a whole host of pop and rock bands of which ABBA is still the best known.

The common presumption that ABBA stands for all Swedish music is an infuriating one, given my distaste for “Dancing Queen” and my love affair with fun, punk-infused pop bands from Sweden. I could cite several examples of such bands, but why bother when the Sounds pretty much sum up everything I like about this genre? The awesome experience of seeing them live at the Metro last Thursday was enough to convince me that, sooner or later, the Sounds will displace the worn-out ABBA as the flagship of Swedish pop.

Granted, the Sounds aren’t particularly original, drawing heavily on New Wave and lightly punkish pop of the ’80s. Though they play well, they aren’t at all serious musicians. But they understand that pop music can be powerful and enchanting without being high art, and they have that Jack Black–esque energy and love of rock that makes for a great show. Like Black, they also have a certain lovable dorkiness to them, despite the swagger of their songs and their hipster appearance. They throw themselves into the music without any self-consciousness or pretension and just enjoy themselves. Their joy onstage is as infectious as their hooks.

Lead singer Maja Ivarsson—who certainly lives up to the reputation of Swedish sex appeal—danced about the stage as if it were her bedroom, silly kicks and hops and all. Keyboardist Jesper Anderberg threw himself to the floor as if possessed during an especially rocking solo. All of the band members clearly got a huge kick out of performing in Chicago. Chicago got an equally big kick from rocking out with the Swedes, and standing on the balcony, I got a great view of their wild, unabashed dancing (and the sea of emo haircuts below). High-energy classics from the Sounds’ first album, Living in America—such as “Hit Me,” “Fire,” and “Seven Days a Week”—got everyone’s adrenaline going. Even the more sedate tunes like “Mine for Life” and “Like a Lady” kept the crowd’s spirits high.

Curiously, though their tour is ostensibly arranged to promote their new album Dying to Say This to You (released March 21), the Sounds shied away from their newer songs and played only a few new singles, including “Queen of Apology” and “Painted by Numbers.” This was fine with me, since I haven’t heard much of the new album yet and was more excited to hear my high school favorites from Living in America. The rest of the crowd seemed to feel the same way, bobbing their heads only lightly to newer songs and erupting into cheers and fist pumps for “Living in America” and “Hope You’re Happy Now.” Ivarsson was delighted to feed off this energy, and she jumped into the crowd a few times (to the clear disapproval of the security staff).

Actually, security’s overall indifference to the show was in comic contrast to the exuberance of the crowd—the beefy guys didn’t move a muscle as Ivarsson wiggled her butt inches above their heads. Ivarsson delighted in even more overtly sexual antics, too—generally involving the microphone and/or guitarist Felix Rodriguez—so as not to disappoint American expectations of Scandinavian sexual liberation. She needn’t have worried; the music and energy alone were enough to keep us happy. But for all of the Sounds’ passionate and unpretentious showmanship, there was a definite (if subtle) undercurrent of an eagerness to please during the whole show.

Nevertheless, natural anxiety to please an audience is understandable, and the Sounds’ performance was genuine and unapologetically fun-loving. The liveliness of their show perfectly complimented the vigor of their songs. I could rock out with as much gusto as I do in my room, but with the added joy of shared energy from the band and crowd—and in sight of some Swedish mohawks.

Years down the line, when I hopefully am no longer forced to suffer through “Mamma Mia” on the radio, I’ll still feel the giddy delight and vitality that’s central to all good pop music, and especially the Sounds’ music.