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ABBA is only the A and B of Swedish rock

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's all ABBA's fault.

For some reason, whenever Americans put the words "Swedish" and "rock" together, all they can come up with is ABBA. Never mind that Ace of Base and Roxette have long since topped ABBA's success record; as far as most Americans are concerned, half the people in Stockholm still wander the streets singing "Fernando."

So maybe we ought to put a couple of misconceptions to rest for good. First, Swedes are not totally ABBA-crazed. On a recent visit to Sweden, the only evidence I saw of lingering ABBA-mania came on a TV show called "Smastjarnona" ("The Little Stars"), which features children lip-syncing to records while dressed up like the original artists.

This particular show opened with a pre-pubescent quartet doing -- who else? -- ABBA. Although their rendition of "Waterloo" was adorable, it was only good enough for third place that night, as a pint-sized John Lennon and a mini-MTV version of Green Day took top honors. Clearly, Sweden has gotten over its ABBA fixation.

And for good reason. Right now, Sweden has one of the strongest pop music scenes in Europe. A lot of that has to do with Ace of Base, whose debut album, "The Sign," produced three of America's 10 best-selling singles for 1994. As a Swedish newspaper story boasted, Ace of Base is one of the biggest industries in their hometown of Gothenburg, a city otherwise known as the home of Volvo.

Ace of Base is hardly the only Swedish act making waves in the music world. Rednex, a semi-parodic dance act that mix bluegrass with techno and appear in public dressed like a touring company for "The Beverly Hillbillies," have put two singles into the European Top 10 this summer: a rave-style remake of "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and a melancholy ballad called "Wish You Were Here." Unfortunately, the group's album, "Sex & Violins" (Battery 46000), has not enjoyed similar success on this side of the Atlantic.

For a time, Roxette seemed the great blond hope of Swedish pop, having enjoyed enormous international success with its albums "Look Sharp!" and "Joyride." But things have not been going as well for the group in recent years, particularly in America. Although "Crash Boom Bang" sold well in Europe, it was released late (and with little fanfare) in the United States, and the group's "MTV Unplugged" episode never aired here.

No wonder, then, that there are currently no plans to release "Roxette Rarities" (Swedish Import, EMI 32277) in America. A shame, because not only does it include several selections from the "MTV Unplugged" performance (including a tasty remake of "The Look"), but its blend of demos, alternate mixes and non-LP material is further testament to both Per Gessle's pop smarts and the power of Marie Fredriksson's voice.

Meanwhile, on the rock front, Whale has managed to amuse and befuddle with its first album, "We Care" (Virgin 40560). Best known for the cult single "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe," Whale specializes in good-natured outrageousness, approaching everything from casual sex to accidental death with the same goofy aplomb.

In other words, Whale doesn't seem to take anything seriously. A lot of that stems from singer Cia Berg, who got her start making prank phone calls for a Stockholm morning radio show (yes, the "morning zoo" format is international in its appeal); in her hands, even the most scandalous lyrics seem playful, an endearing mix of put-on and come-on. (I'd offer examples, but this is a family newspaper.)

Even better, the band backs her naughty singing with a sloppy, garage-band take on dance rock that's as catchy as it is casual. At its best, as on songs like "Pay for Me," "I'll Do Ya" and "Kickin'," Whale comes across like the unexpected spawn of Cracker and Hole -- great stuff, even if it is too risque for radio.

Far more radio-friendly (though as yet without U.S. distribution) are the Cardigans. This quintet was a big success at Britain's Reading Festival this year, and after spending some time with the group's latest album, "Life" (Swedish Import, Trampolene 1502/527 284), it's not hard to hear why.

Resolutely tuneful and engagingly stylish, the Cardigans are a classic post-modern pop act, happily ransacking the past to assemble the perfect cocktail of sound and attitude. Sift through the songs on "Life," and you'll hear echoes of everything from Blondie-ish surf rock ("Fine") to Aztec Camera-style guitar pop ("Gordon's Garden Party"). But because no one influence ever dominates, what we're left with is a sound both familiar and new, putting the Cardigans on a par with the equally chic Pizzicato Five.

Back seat to dance music

In Sweden, though, alterna-rock generally takes a back seat to dance music. House- and techno-oriented compilation albums are big business, and often wind up in the Top 40. Nor is it hard to understand why, if albums like "Absolute Dance 8" (Swedish Import, EVA 5024) are typical. Mixing such Swedish artists as Clubland, Melodie MC and Dreamworld with Eurodisco acts like Real McCoy, Haddaway and La Bouche, the album is as big a bargain as any K-Tel collection.

It's also a great way to learn about acts you otherwise might miss. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on "Absolute Dance 8" was "One of Us," a reggae-ish ABBA oldie remade by a woman named Pandora. So I sought out her album, "Tell the World" (Swedish Import, Virgin 40267), and was not disappointed. True, it offered little like "One of Us," tending more to rhythmically intense techno pop, but given the hook-intensive sound of songs like "Don't You Know" and "The Naked Sun," that hardly left room for complaint.

One Swedish dance hit that may be a little too wacky for most Americans is Drangarna, which translates roughly as "the farm boys." Like Rednex, this group goes for a sound that's equal parts tradition and techno, but the lads in Drangarna take a proudly provincial approach, building their album "I Afton

Logdans" (Swedish Import, Virgin 40713) around folk themes and rural conventions. In other words, unless you're Swedish, not only will you need to have the jokes translated, you'll have to have someone explain them as well. But it doesn't take much to understand the appeal of "Vill Du Bli Min Fru" ("Will You Be My Wife"), a tune so insanely catchy that you'll be humming along even if you don't know the language.

Still, if you really want to hear what the average Swede grooves to, you need to listen to "Svensktoppen," a weekly radio show that features the top-selling Swedish-language recordings. Few of these albums ever get heard outside Sweden or Swedish emigrant circles, but that hardly means they aren't worth hearing.

Natural for America

Take Lisa Nilsson, for example. Blessed with a supple alto voice and a sure sense of melody, she would be a natural for the American market if she ever started singing in English. Her current album, "Till Morelia" (Swedish Import, Diesel C-17), is rich with soulful, dramatic songs backed by sly, funk-inflected arrangements -- exactly the sort of thing that put Amy Grant and Vanessa Williams on the charts. Even better, Nilsson never oversells her songs, letting understatement carry the weight in "Blir Det Hon Eller Blir Det Jag" ("Will It Be Her or Will It Be Me") or the languid "Kanner Du Som Jag" ("Do You Feel Like I Do").

Cecilia Vennersten, on the other hand, seems a more typically Swedish singer. She's got a big, rich voice, just like the women in ABBA, and favors the soaring, melancholy melodies that seem second nature to Swedish songwriters. But the interesting thing about her album, "Cecilia Vennersten" (Swedish Import, CNR 955 024), is the way it plays those elements. Drawing on both folk and New Age elements, it leaves Vennersten sounding something like a Swedish Enya. It's unlikely Enya would ever record anything as overtly pop-oriented as "Skogens Ra" ("The Forest's Edge"), but almost any Enya fan would surely be smitten by "Det Vackraste" ("The Most Beautiful").

That is, if they ever got the chance to hear it. Apart from a few Swedish specialty stores in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, Swedish imports are appallingly hard for Americans to find. Of course, you could just fly over and do your shopping in Stockholm, but airfare aside, album prices in Sweden are very high by American standards. Most current titles go for around 169 kronor (roughly $23 at current exchange rates), with sale prices no lower than 139 kronor ($20).

:. No wonder all most Americans know is ABBA!

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