ABBA set reveals more than one-hit wonder

Did ABBA ever make a bad record? For fans of the Swedish group's nearly two dozen U.S. hits, including ear candy like "Dancing Queen" and "Mamma Mia," it's probably hard to imagine anything not being close to irresistible.

Sure enough: a new, nine-disc retrospective from Polar Music lets us hear 90 ABBA recordings and almost 80 have at least some trace of the group's trademark effervescence. That's a success ratio level that few musicians can match.


"The Albums"

Polar Music

The back story: ABBA's first U.S. hit, "Waterloo," had such an uplifting charm in 1974 that you couldn't help but fall under its spell even though the bouncy, lightweight record was about as far as you could get from the "serious" rock music of the time. If anyone ever sounded like a one-hit wonder, it was ABBA, which consisted of writer-singer-producers Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

But the hits kept coming.

Whether on sentimental ballads like "Fernando" or frantic dance floor numbers such as "Take a Chance on Me," ABBA packed its music with such universal, high-spirited emotion that it's no wonder audiences fell in love with it all over again thanks to the musical "Mamma Mia!"

By the time "Dancing Queen" hit in 1976, even the rock community was starting to embrace the group. Elvis Costello and his producer-sidekick Nick Lowe were among its most vocal champions. Still, most fans thought of ABBA as a singles group rather than an album maker, which helps explain why none of the group's eight studio albums made the U.S. Top 10.

The music: Though "The Albums" includes the ABBA hits, the treat is in exploring the remaining material and a few rarities -- and there are lots of surprises. Among them: an early, unsuccessful attempt to move into the more substantial singer-songwriter style that was so influential in the '70s and an electro-charged medley of folk tunes, including "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Midnight Special."

Ulvaeus and Andersson, who later composed the music for the stage production "Chess," sometimes reached beyond the fluffy ABBA sound, but they were at their best when they stuck to the lighter formula. Sometimes, though, things were too light, such as the tropical corn of "Sitting in the Palmtree."

My nomination for the best ABBA track that wasn't a hit in the U.S.: "When I Kissed the Teacher," a zestful number that recalls the teen passion of such Phil Spector productions as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Runner-up: the zany, super-charged "Bang-a-Boomerang." There was clearly more to ABBA than the hits, and this set is proof.

Nick Lowe

"Quiet Please . . . The New Best of Nick Lowe"

Yep Roc

The back story: It's natural that singer-songwriter Lowe would admire ABBA because there is a light, disarming, everyman touch to his own rock approach. Lowe also produced some of Costello's great, early albums and wrote one of his most popular recordings, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."

For all his solid craftsmanship and understated appeal, Lowe had only two Top 100 solo singles, the wry "Cruel to Be Kind" in 1979 and the fun-filled, high energy "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)." One reason is because he was overshadowed by Costello, a more provocative writer and performer.

In addition, Lowe was a maverick whose approach to rock 'n' roll was much closer to today's "indie" spirit. He was reluctant to bow to all the compromises that major labels tried to impose on artists in the 1970s and 1980s.

The new two-disc package includes 49 recordings from various phases of Lowe's career and there are delights at every turn, from way back to his work with the band Brinsley Schwarz to early solo gems "So It Goes" and "(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass" and his 1980 Rockpile album. The set also includes four tracks from "At My Age," his 2007 album on Yep Roc.

A deluxe, limited edition of "Quiet Please" also contains a DVD featuring early Lowe videos and a 2007 concert filmed in Belgium. Whether you're new to Lowe or need a re-introduction, this set makes a convincing case for his place among rock's most valuable players.

Backtracking is a monthly column devoted to CDs and other pop music items of historical interest.

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