Earlier this year, Stockholm’s Shout Out Louds came roaring back with what may be their best album to date, the shimmering Optica. With its electronic textures, it felt like the dance party that lasts till purple dawn. Now their countryman, Jens Lekman, has had a stab at pulling the infectious “14th of July” further into the light.
Jens Lekman is a fan of telling engaging, amusing and very personal stories, whether in his music, between songs at his live shows or on his blog. His latest yarn, a new song called "Olivia & Maddy," is a pop thank-you to two fans who helped Lekman’s pianist, Jonas, leave New York and meet the rest of the band in time for a tour on the opposite end of the country after the deluge of Hurricane Sandy. As Lekman recounts on his blog:
"Back in October, my pianist Jonas got stuck in New York after the city got hit by hurricane Sandy. The roads were flooded, flights were cancelled, even the Chinatown buses stood still. This was two days before our west coast tour was supposed to start. I decided to ask for your help. I asked if anyone would be able to drive him to Boston where I knew we could get him on a plane. In return I offered a little money and a song."
Hey, what’s up? At the time I’m writing this, I have been sitting at the airport for nine hours because my flight back to California for Christmas was overbooked, so I’m kind of at the point of hoping the Mayans were right. Here’s your apocalypse playlist.
Beyoncé – "End Of Time"
Admit it, if the world was actually ending, you’d want to go out listening to Beyoncé.
Tame Impala – "Apocalypse Dreams"
The Australian psych-rock outfit doesn’t mess around with the end of the world. Imagine the earth bursting into flames in slow motion!
Andrew Bird – “Yawny At The Apocalypse”
You’re bored of this apocalypse talk, aren’t you? Andrew Bird apparently already was back in 2007, with this track that closes out Armchair Apocrypha.
Jens Lekman – "The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love"
The apocalypse really puts things into perspective, or at least it does for Swedish raconteur Jens Lekman. This song also shouts out the Flatbush Ave Target, which sounds like a decent place to stock up on doomsday supplies.
Guillemots – “If The World Ends”
This seems like a pretty chill way to end things. It’s either that or watching Melancholia, which I still haven’t seen all the way through because I fell asleep.
Mew – "Apocalypso"
The Danish band made their breakout back in 2005 with "Apocalypso." It’s still a driving anthem for a fiery crash.
Housse De Racket – "Apocalypso"
You get two songs with the same title, because apparently the apocalypse is a more favored theme in indie rock than I previously realized. I’m glad I’m finding this out before our premature demise.
Julian Casablancas – “Four Chords Of The Apocalypse”
Apocalypse confession: I still haven’t listened to the most recent Strokes album all the way through. Maybe I can still fit that in before Cthulu rises or whatever.
The Doors – "The End"
Shit, I’m still only in Saigon.
Insert joke about tryptophan here. I’m thankful that I made it through my entire family dinner without anyone asking me if I was “seeing anyone special.” I’m also thankful that I am sane enough to have zero desire to line up outside Target to try to buy stuff that I don’t actually want. Thanksgiving’s over, let’s move on to this week’s tracks.
Saint Michel – “Katherine”
This swoon-worthy synth-pop duo is hard to resist. Hailing from Versailles, France, Saint Michel just made their American debut in New York City, and they’re sure to make more magic happen soon.
Villagers – “Nothing Arrived”
Irish folk outfit Villagers is prepping a new album, entitled Awayland. “Nothing Arrived” shows that main man Conor O’Brien still has plenty of straightforward charm.
Grizzly Bear – “Boy From School” (Hot Chip cover)
This mournful, stripped-down cover of one of Hot Chip’s breakout singles has a haunting effect that makes it just as powerful as the original.
Jens Lekman – “The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love”
Jens Lekman cures all ills.
Holidays – “Only In Dreams”
This Roman band charms effortlessly with a jangly, new wave-influenced take on indie rock. Is it summer again yet?
Cheatahs – “The Swan”
British guitar bands are supposed to be coming back, or something along those lines. London’s Cheatahs are set to lead the pack, armed with plenty of fuzzed-out pop hooks.
Girls – “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker”
Sure, Christopher Owens has gone solo now, but it’s nice to look back at when we first started loving him with Girls. With riffs rolling like the hills of San Francisco, “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” is still a highlight from Album.
Graham Coxon – “What’s He Got?”
The story of being second best is a familiar one, but Mr. Coxon sounds surprisingly optimistic about it. If you can’t be dancing with tears in your eyes, mope with a smile on your face?
Lush – “Single Girl”
This one goes out to everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to avoid all of their aunts asking why they don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend yet.
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For the past several months, Swedish artist dimbodius has been teasing a new full-length album, one apparently eight years in the making. Sisyphus’ Surrender, due to be released November 14, is a follow-up to his While We Fall of 2004, and already has a handful of stellar singles to recommend it. Today marks the release of another infectious track, “Come Weigh Me Down,” along with a stripped-down video.
From the titles alone you might guess that dimbodius has the arch and melancholy humor of the guys from Hurts, an English band that does a great Scandinavian sound, or droll countryman Jens Lekman. And the music itself has some of the cold precision of Jonathan Johnansson, even while leaping to the operatic heights enjoyed by electronic duo The Sound of Arrows.
If none of those names mean anything to you, let’s just say they amount to slick, sugary, hook-happy pop that doesn’t skimp on lyrical complexity. And on that score, it’s some of the best of its kind around right now. Just try not to fall for that chiming, swoony, splendor when “Sharleen” hits a chorus. Bet you start reenacting scenes from the John Hughes canon instead.
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Hey, so, I had a rainy day mix planned out for you guys because it’s been sort of gross in New York all week, but then I walked outside my apartment (I do that sometimes) this morning and it was sunny! So this is what you get instead.
The Bewitched Hands – “Boss”
Can there ever be enough melodic indie pop loaded with vocal harmonies? The answer is no, and the Bewitched Hands are more than happy to oblige.
Fort Lean – “Sunsick”
Stark, bare bones rock from some guys in Brooklyn. Some days, you just need a little help.
This Many Boyfriends – “Number One”
This Many Boyfriends make the kind of smart, wistful guitar pop that sounds pretty good when you have zero boyfriends.
Chad Valley – “Tell All Your Friends”
Is Chad Valley’s Young Hunger one of your most anticipated albums of the year? It should be, at least if you’re into R&B-inflected electro-pop that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Darkstar – “Timeaway”
The latest act to sign to the ever-reliable Warp Records, Darkstar’s going to be on our radars. “Timeaway” is lush and layered, with reverb-drenched vocals. Take it easy.
Cut Copy – “Saturdays”
Enter the semi-nostalgic part of the playlist. The Australian electro-poppers have been delivering the good stuff for years, and here’s a memory of what first made us fall in love.
The Long Blondes – “Swallow Tattoo”
Is it okay to still be mourning the loss of The Long Blondes? The English indie rock outfit was fairly prolific for the short time that it lasted, and Kate Jackson’s persona as the retro-chic woman wronged is worth revisiting over and over again.
Belle & Sebastian – “Asleep On A Sunbeam”
This is what we all need in our lives all of the time.
Jens Lekman – “You Can Call Me Al” (Paul Simon cover)
This cover could be worthy of Nick from New Girl’s sex mix.
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Jens Lekman—global vagabond, indie heartthrob, singer-songwriter, romantic Don Quixote, and international music star—is just about to release his fourth proper album, I Know What Love Isn’t, when I meet with him in Gothenburg, Sweden. It’s also his first release in almost five years. Between his debut in around 2003 and his last album, 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman was reasonably prolific, releasing three albums and ten EPs. While some songs popped up on multiple releases, fans could count on some kind of new Jens Lekman single or EP or album popping up every few months. Then, suddenly, there was nothing.
“A lot of people thought I had writer’s block,” Lekman tells me, “but it was the opposite of that. There were just so many songs coming out. What I had probably was a finishing block—if there is such a thing. I felt like I was trying to do what I always did, which was just to make a loose collection of recordings and throw them together. But the album was trying to tell me that it wanted to be an album, and I wasn’t really paying attention to that.”
I’m having something of a hard time paying attention to Lekman myself. We’re sitting on a park bench, sipping coffee and munching doughnuts under a tree, while a roller coaster roars behind us and children run by screaming with errant candy wrappers and stumbling parents in their wake. I’m on a short vacation to Sweden, which I’ve given myself as a thirtieth birthday present, and I’m staying in Lekman’s hometown of Gothenburg on the country’s far western coast. As it happens, he was in town at the same time. He suggested we meet at Liseburg, a huge, leafy, and slightly rinky-dink amusement park that sits just on the edge of town—picture Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A. if it were Nordic, mixed with a few large modern roller coasters, arcades, and performance venues. “It’s the largest [amusement park] in Northern Europe,” Lekman tells me with a rather bemused tone.
In the days leading up to our interview, whenever I would tell a local that I was meeting going to Liseburg, they would frown slightly and ask me why (to be fair, they also reacted this way when I told them I was spending my vacation in Gothenburg). The general consensus was that it’s the kind of place you go once and never again. Lekman agreed: “First time, you vomit, basically. Then you know what it’s like.”
Much of Lekman’s work is about his hometown. He slouches lovesick around its public transport, neighborhoods, and even its many, many convenience stores. When he sighs in one early song, “Have you eaten your banana from 7-11?” it’s hard to imagine cramming more repressed romantic feeling crammed into a snack question.
“Gothenburg used to be a really tacky place. This was Gothenburg,” he says, gesturing at the tourists and souvenir sellers that surround us. “It was green moon bunnies, shrimps, people playing bingo. Music and culture was just desperate people trying to replicate what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. It was horrible.
“You couldn’t sing about trams in the ’90s,” he continues, referring to Gothenburg’s self-consciously old-fashioned public transportation system. “You would have been killed if you did that. You would have been laughed at. But, all of a sudden, in the first years of the new millennium you could do that. There was like newborn pride, almost like a patriotism, over that. It really had its roots in what was not cool about [Gothenburg] rather than what was a little cool about it.”
There’s another supposedly uncool thing that has been central to Lekman’s work: sincerity. None of his songs wink at the listener, though they can be funny. He always puts himself at the center of the narrative, trying desperately to accomplish something. That can be something grand, like falling in love, but as often as not it’s something ordinary—he wants to get home from a party, or ride his bike up a hill, or have a good time at a party—but circumstances conspire to make him ridiculous. On “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” he’s taken his little sister to the beach to try to have a heartfelt talk with her about life. “I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness,” he sings. “But a crab crawled out of it, making it useless.” This is fairly typical. He’s a kind of good-natured, lyrical Harold Lloyd, doing his best in an absurd universe. Despite his continual frustrations, especially with love, Lekman never sounds despairing. He simply packs up and tries again, with a new girl, in a new country, on another night.
At least, that was the case. There’s a creeping melancholy at the edges of I Know What Love Isn’t. Strike that; it’s not at the edges—it’s front and center. It’s in the mournful piano interlude that bookends the record, in the long, low sax solos that pepper the record, in Lekman’s extra slow and sleepily downtrodden singing. Hell, it’s right there in the title. It sounds like something a confused and sad person says when they break up with someone for reasons they can’t really articulate or something you to tell yourself when looking back at a relationship that ended for reasons you don’t understand. Is this what happened to Lekman?
“I would say about sixty-six percent is autobiographical,” he tells me. “For a while, I was worried that it was too personal. I was worried that I was just putting out my diary and that no one would be able to relate to it. The way I wrote was very—as opposed to the way I wrote before, when it was more like I had an idea for a song and the song was done already when I wrote it. For this record, I just started writing to see where it would take me, basically. And I started drawing from personal experience, and personal things that had happened to me, and then the stories started taking shape on their own.”
This wasn’t the only thing that makes this an unique entry in Lekman’s catalogue. Previously, Lekman assembled his albums by writing and recording a whole raft of songs, and sending them around to his friends. “You know what Eurovision Song Contest is?” he asks me, referring to the American Idol-like trash TV spectacle that captivates all of Europe every year. “They had like one of those. They’d call me up, and be like, ‘Song number three: five points. Song number four: eight points,’ and I’d put together a chart, and it would come out as an album.” Love, conversely, started out as an album, with the order and flow of the songs mapped out from the start. This is hardly a musical revolution for the world at large, but it felt that way to Lekman.
Eventually, Lekman and I say our goodbyes. “Do you like rollercoasters?” he asks me, and I have a sudden burst of anxiety, because I can’t tell what answer he’s looking for. I can’t even necessarily remember if I do like rollercoasters or not. Finally, I venture a yes. “Well, in that case, you should check out Balder,” he says, gesturing at the park’s famous antique wooden rollercoaster. Thirty minutes later, he’s gone, and I’m still waiting in line for my ride. It occurs to me that I’m only there in case I run into him later, so I’ll have something to talk to him about.
As it happens, I do run into him again. That evening, Lekman invites me to join him and his friends at Mastthuggskyrkan, an imposing, nearly century-old church that sits towards the edge of town on the side of a steep hill. We drink wine and smoke cigarettes while the sun sets over the city. There’s an outdoor concert whose sounds waft up to us as we chat, in English, for my benefit. Eventually, the last light fades, fireworks go off over the concert, and we all split up. Lekman has to go to bed because he’s taking his father to a concert the next day.
More than anything, I Know What Love Isn’t sounds like Jens’s break-up record. A man who has spent most of his adult life running away from other people seems to have finally had his heart broken. Earlier in the day, I suggested this to Lekman. Has the way he looks at relationships changed as he’s grown older? He’s 31 now. Is he looking for something more permanent in his life? Has it gotten harder to just pull up stakes and move on at the end of a relationship?
He takes a long pause before answering. “Maybe. Well, let me just quote Candi Staton: ‘Young hearts run free.’ It’s harder when you’re older to get dumped.” It may have gotten harder, but that doesn’t mean Lekman has given up tilting at windmills.
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After Jens Lekman and Niki & the Dove came to New York this past weekend, we were inspired to round up some songs from our favorite Swedish artists. Settle down with a plate of internet uterus and some informational reading about Judaism and check out this week’s picks.
Jens Lekman – “Waiting For Kirsten”
No one tells a story like Jens Lekman, who’s equally adept at bringing laughter and tears. This song leans more toward the former, telling the now-notorious story of how the singer-songwriter once tried to meet Kirsten Dunst. Anticipation levels for his forthcoming heartbreak-centric album, I Know What Love Isn’t, are already running high.
Peter, Bjorn and John – “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off”
It’s already too hot to come up with a remotely funny joke about the weather. All whistling aside, Peter, Bjorn and John’s 2011 album Gimme Some was highly underrated.
Noonie Bao – “Do You Still Care”
If you can look past the “white person experiencing exotic India” video, “Do You Still Care?” sees up-and-comer Noonie Bao delivering an extraordinary performance. Depending on what kind of emotional upheaval you’ve recently gone through, this song represents the stage either before or after “Somebody I Used To Know.”
We Are Serenades – “Birds”
Featuring members of Shout Out Louds and Laasko, We Are Serenades find strength in harmonies. Also, strings!
Miike Snow – “God Help This Divorce”
Cool down with this crisp track from Miike Snow’s latest, Happy To You.
Niki & The Dove – “DJ, Ease My Mind”
The electro-pop group sold out their Northside Festival show last Thursday, and the buzz is only going to continue to skyrocket by the time they return to the US this fall to tour with Twin Shadow. Dance with tears in your eyes!
Karin Park – “Restless”
Dark like the Knife, but easier to sing along with.
Icona Pop – “Nights Like This”
Icona Pop were already featured on last week’s playlist, but we can’t help it if the dance-pop duo makes infectious tunes. They’re also playing their first New York headlining show this Friday at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery. If you didn’t get tickets in time, you can always see a different Swedish band that night.
The Hives – “Wait A Minute”
The Hives can always be relied on for a good time, and they’ll be tearing down Terminal 5 on Friday. After going five years since their previous album, they’re back with a vengeance on Lex Hives.
Robyn – “Dancing On My Own”
You didn’t think we were going to forget this, did you?
Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman is prone to making you feel a lot of things: happy, sad, empathy for a lonely vagabond hermit crab. Lekman was the darling of the music world in 2007, thanks to his wonderful album, Night Falls Over Kortedala. This September, he will release his third full-length album on Secretly Canadian, although he has yet to reveal a title.
What we do have is the first single from said album, "Erica America." Lekman’s Belle & Sebastian influence can be heard quite clearly, amid "Careless Whisper"-evoking saxophones and sensory lyrics about the regret of wine and air that smells of popcorn and ladies’ perfume. Hopefully, this is a sign of many good things to come from Lekman.