Sweede Pop Rebellion: Labrador Records’ Acid House Kings and The Radio Dept.

Witnessing Chicago’s 90 days of March slide into a vicious combination of thunderstorms and dense balmy fog interspersed by 100+ degree sweat fests, I wonder if the full brunt of our four seasons is what shapes the city’s style – what I perceive to be a humble workman-like output. One thing’s for sure, it’s weird weather nowadays. It’s weather, I would argue, perfect for two Sweede bands that personify unforgiving sunniness and its compliment; temperate, likeable gloom.

Some would argue that an area’s aesthetic output is in direct response to their environment; the patterns and (un)predictability of the seasons, the climate, the landscape, etc.  What a curious case then, is Sweeden, a stoic post-Viking Socialist country with limited resources, unforgiving land, and eternal-twilight winters dotted with the briefest of temperate summers.

One could imagine the sonic output of Scandanavia to be as such – bleak, traditional, difficult, closed, solipsistic — all-in-all depressing. So someone please explain ABBA — a band whose exports exude all the attributes opposite of my imagined Sweede sonic personality.

Abba’s saccharine output is a contradiction of all things an outsider would view as Vikingly. When asked why their output was uncompromisingly sunny Abba’s answer was revelatory. In the conceivably rigid structure of pro-socialist Scandanavia — where the populace’s feelings towards capitalism are comparable to a conventional American opinion of communism — English language disco-pop was the most rebellious music youths could make. In a way, ABBA was punk – socialist punk.

So, Abba was an anomaly right? A blip on the radar. A group of contrarians who found global acceptance by denying what was accepted in their homeland. “Not as such,” politely interjects Labrador Records with an adorable Sweedish accent.

Labrador, after quietly unleashing three-minute ear bugs for the last decade, released Labrador 100 to an unsuspecting blogoshpere in 2005 — a two-disc compilation of immaculately produced Sweede-pop that planted the indie-pop flag firmly on the rocky outcroppings of the fjords. The highlight-of-highlights on the seamless comp were two bands who have recently dropped new records; the adorably twee Acid House Kings, and the moody thoughtful pop of The Radio Dept.

Acid House Kings

Acid House King’s Music Sounds Better With You is immediately disarming, beguilingly sweet jangle-pop. It’s an album whose tracks are continually bouncy… bopping along with girl/boy vocals adorned by orchestrated strings, piano, brass, castanets, flute, hand claps, and tambourine. It’s the kind of sonic output that even the most acerbic indie snob has to crack a smile to. As they glide through the album, singing in their second language, the simplistic lyrics and even the occasional grammar error only add to the charm.

The album exudes playfulness. Starting with their band name which is the furthest from acid house one could possibly get, the Stardust name-checking LP cheekily references other Anglo pop standards, namely “I just called to say jag älskar dig” (trans: “I love you”). In an atmosphere where most bands need an angle, Acid House Kings pitch one right over the middle of the plate. Uncomplicated harmonies and structures hit the listener right in the soft spot that music snobs pretend not to have anymore, and it works.

The Radio Dept.

Listening through the wall of Acid House Kings impeccably designed (IKEA-furnished?) bedroom is their slightly moodier, pensive flatmates The Radio Dept. Their decade has seen a transition from a neo-shoegaze band to a modern ensemble — completed a few years ago after firing their drummer, stating that they were “headed in a new direction”. Despite detractors, their output since has been impressive. If Acid House Kings’ pop model is akin to Scotland’s beloved Belle & Sebastian, The Radio Dept. has found their muse in shoegaze and the MIDI-drum confessionals of 80s touchstone The Field Mice.

After the excellent 2006 LP Pet Grief, and following their prominent presence in Labrador 100, (and a nod in Sophia Coppolla’s anachronistic Marie Antoinette,) their acclaim has skyrocketed. They capped it off this year with a career retrospective album and an LP of new material — Clinging to a Scheme — originally planned for release in 2008.

The album quickly shows its cards as their single, “Heaven’s on Fire,” opens with a clip of Thurston Moore from the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke: “People see rock and roll as youth culture and when youth culture become monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?” As Thurston continues, one wonders if the reference is sincere or peppered with wry irony, as a plinky synth line intercedes while Moore continues, “Do you have any idea? I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture.”

What happens for 3 minutes afterwards is solid lovelorn pop with strummy electric guitar, major piano chords, saxophone, electronic drum samples, synthesizer blasts, and a breezy bass groove. It’s the sort of song a ‘90s Seattle-ite would absolutely cringe at.

The rest of the album follows a similar,gratifying bent. The static-y vocal filters can’t hide the Johan Duncanson’s sweet delivery and diary-worthy musings. It’s an ideal album for head-nodding during a foggy afternoon, or shimmying to during an early summer downpour.

So, back to punk breaking– is Radio Dept.’s use of Moore’s quote a reverent nod towards their idealistic anti-consumer sentiment, or a way to call American Punk’s failure? Knowing what is known now – that “alternative,” punk’s heir, was very quickly subsumed into popular music under Sonic Youth’s supervision, and the documentary itself (which included Courtney Love and David Grohl, natch) acted as witness to punk’s undoing, what is it doing as the lead-in to a decidedly un-“punk “album?

Is the inclusion of Moore’s commentary a rally cry for musical rebellion, or a reference to the inseparable link between American youth, music and profit? Vocalist Duncanson replies in verse, “…We’re outnumbered by those who take no pride in constantly moving against the tide. Charlatans just out of reach and out of time.”

‘Just something to think about until September when this weather gets tolerable again.

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