Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Music from Another Cold Place

Before I start, here is some sad news: Jimmy Boyd, whom I featured here last December, died Saturday (March 7) at the age of 70. I send my heartfelt condolences to his family.

This evening, it is 9 degrees F. (-13 C) in St. Cloud, Minnesota. We’re headed for a low of -9 F. (-23 C). The change sounds much more drastic in Fahrenheit than in Celsius, and it should. After a few days of 68-degree (20 C) weather in Indiana, returning to Minnesota just in time for a near-blizzard is a distressing experience.

Six hours east of here, it is 3am in Stockholm, and the temperature is 28 F. (-2 C) there. It’s true that Stockholm is on the Baltic Sea, but I would think that, at the end of winter, the water would keep the air cooler, as Lake Michigan does for Chicago this time of year. I am doubly, perhaps triply, offended at the current warmth of Stockholm in comparison to my landlocked town.

Sweden comes to mind for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of neighbors whose families trotted over here from Sweden or Norway several generations ago. Second, I’m thinking how much better those people’s bodies seem to be adapted to March blizzards than mine is. I am just two generations removed from a temperate island in the North Sea that is green year round. I don’t have enough body fat to keep me toasty. I just shaved the beard I grew all winter, a beard that kept the winter chill off my face. I guess I’ll use a scarf in the morning when the wind drives ice particles at my cheeks.

Maybe, then, moving to a place that Swedes found comforting in the winter was not my best idea ever. But I like Sweden, its people, and its music. Regular readers know I appreciate the music of a Swedish act, ABBA, enough to feature them on the blog. But ABBA went the way of most of my favorite bands more than 25 years ago. Current pop music has become another somewhat bleak landscape.

When I was looking for acts to fill the space left empty by ABBA, the Eagles, Elton John, and the J. Geils Band, among others (I had already replaced the Beatles with Elton John), I gave other Swedish acts a look. I found Roxette acceptable; I know that one blogger friend has never quite gotten them, but I think “It Must Have been Love” is a priceless and exquisitely produced bit of bittersweet pop. That made two Swedish acts I could listen to without cringing. But Roxette drifted away as well.

I tried expanding my world view to Norway, but the band Dance with a Stranger, complete with a lead singer named Elg, didn’t work too well for me. Back to Sweden, I learned to love Väsen, but they are more folk and World Music than pop, which is where I live.

And finally, I learned of yet another Swedish female vocalist, this time a solo singer, whose album found its way into my regular listening cycle.

On a 1993 album titled Shapes (Epic Sweden 473737), Josefin Nilsson gave me another Swedish voice to enjoy. Sounding gritty, more like Roxette’s Marie Fredriksson than ABBA’s Fältskog or Lyngstad, she carried the songs chosen by her producer farther than they might have gone with a lesser voice. The album was pop, not leaning toward jazz or folk. It was a solid follower of ABBA and Roxette and worthy of a place in that genealogy.

Data in English on Josefin Nilsson is, at this point, thin, so I resorted to the Swedish Wikipedia for help. She was born in 1969 in Alvare, on Gotland, an island south of Stockholm in the Baltic Sea. In 1993, she was a former member of the Ainbusk Singers, which included her sister Marie Nilsson-Lindh as well. Ainbusk contributed backing vocals to one of Josefin’s songs on Shapes. A look at the current Ainbusk website indicates that they are both in Ainbusk again.

Josefin has also appeared on the Swedish stage in a Swedish-language production of the musical Chess. She has starred in a couple of films: the 1997 Swedish film Adam & Eva, as Eva, and the 2000 comedy Det blir aldrig som man tänkt sig (noted on IMDB as “probably the best Swedish film ever”), in the lead role of Sophia.

Given her Ainbusk return and her film success, it’s no wonder that Josefin left me in the lurch after this album to seek yet again a Swedish singer to fill that niche in my ever-growing bunch of favorite musical niches. If you have suggestions for me, do speak up.

The Josefin Nilsson album that put her on my map includes some of my favorite Swedish musicians, including Rutger Gunnarsson on bass and Lasse Wellander on guitar. Anders Glenmark, who sang the chorus on Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok,” contributes vocals. The album was produced by Benny Andersson, who also contributes the keyboards and arranged the songs.

It would seem that Josefin agreed to sing the songs chosen by her producer, rather than select tunes herself. Benny Andersson co-wrote all of the songs with Björn Ulvaeus. This duo wrote Chess with Tim Rice, and they were the executive producers of the 2008 film Mamma Mia!. They wrote a number of worldwide hits between 1974 and 1982, and they earned two gold records in the United States with the #1 hit “Dancing Queen” (1977) and the #3 hit “Take a Chance on Me” (1978).

Get the latest on Josefin Nilsson at her website. In addition to the album songs, here are Josefin and Helen Sjöholm, with Benny Anderssons Orkester, singing “Jag vet vad han vill” (“I Know Him So Well”) from Chess.

And for comparison, the Elaine Paige/Barbara Dickson English version from the original cast album of Chess.

For Saturday, I will be in full command of my computing resources, so I will not have any trouble with the 1950s chart post for Week Eleven (with more details of Week Ten thrown in). See you then! And if you live in Minnesota, stay warm!

Josefin Nilsson, When I Watch You in Your Sleep

Josefin Nilsson, Where the Whales Have Ceased to Sing

Josefin Nilsson, High Hopes and Heartaches

Josefin Nilsson, Leave It to Love


Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

That Elaine/Barbara video - I love the song, but WOW. I like the chess board set.

I got laughed at for being an obsessive ABBA fan, because I wanted to watch the Swedish Song Contest (Melodifestivalen) when I was there in 2004 solely because ABBA won that contest thirty years earlier.

But my host was a tall, blond Swedish girl who works at IKEA, so I wasn't the only one fulfilling a stereotype, thank you!

I love "Shapes", by the way. I lost the tape ages ago, so this was a great reminder. :)

Ryan Cameron said...

Nice feature on Josefin. I've had her "Shapes" album for a long time and haven't listened to it in years. The songs on there are good, but I found I eventually got bored with the album.

I've even tried an album by Ainbusk, Josefin's other group, but didn't like that at all. And I do have the Swedish version of Chess, but I find I'm more drawn to it because Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg than Josefin Nilsson.

I need to correct you on the comment about Roxette drifting away, as they technically haven't drifted away although from a US based perspective, it's easy to think they've been gone since 1994, as some huge mistakes by their US record label, EMI, have pretty much made Roxette seem non-existent in the US since then.

Due to a hugely mismanaged McDonald's promotional CD which released 10 songs from Roxette's then upcoming album, "Crash! Boom! Bang!" that was only available at McDonald's restaurants for a limited time and at a dirt cheap price ($5.99 if I remember correctly).

The McDonald's album sold quickly and at least in my local market sold out before any of the other artists in the McDonald's promotion (the other 3 artists had 10 song "best off" collections offered) but because McDonald's wasn't a traditional outlet for music sales, the sales weren't tracked officially for music sales.

Music retailers were upset with McDonald's getting exclusive collections at prices that undercut what they were able to offer, and as a result they retaliated against Roxette's "Crash! Boom! Bang!" album once it was released by only ordering single copies. Who was going to come into a store and buy a 15 track CD for $15-$20 when 2/3 of the album was already available for 1/3 the price elsewhere?? So the Crash! Boom! Bang! album completely tanked in the US and Roxette'a promising career in the US was pretty much history at that point.

Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson of Roxette really took a little break from Roxette between 1994's "Crash! Boom! Bang!" and 1999's "Have A Nice Day" album. In the interim, they did help keep the group's name out there through through some releases. There was the 1995 Best of collection they did 4 new songs for. In 1996, Spanish language versions of some of Roxette's Ballads were released. Basically new recordings of already existing songs. Then in 1997, Roxette's first album, "Pearls of Passion", (which was originally only released in Sweden and Canada) was re-released with demo recordings as bonus tracks.

Of all these interim releases between albums, the only one that saw a US release was the Spanish album. It got released in the US in 1997 on the EMI Latin label. The album had little to no promotion in the US to English speaking fans as it was a different division of EMI that released it. Pretty much, unless you knew about it, you'd have been hard pressed to even know it was out. And in areas like California, where there is enough of a Spanish language market to warrant a separate section in the store, Roxette's Spanish album wasn't stocked with their English albums, it was in the Spanish section, so you had to it was there to find it.

Additionally during this period where Roxette wasn't "active" it wasn't as though Per and Marie weren't either. Both released solo albums during that period. Marie's was in Swedish, Per's was in English. His "The World According to Gessle" was not released in the US. Per also did a major Swedish tour with his previous band before Roxette when they re-formed for an album and tour.

The US never got Roxette's 1999 "Have A Nice Day" album but they did briefly sign with the Edel Label in 2000 when a Greatest Hits album was released that included major hits plus a couple of new ones from the "Have A Nice Day" album, but the label went out of business before any major promotion for it could take place.

The US also didn't get Roxette's 2001 "Room Service" album. So the US really missed out on a lot by this point.

By 2002, Roxette was ready for another attempt at Best of collections, and they did it in a more unorthodox way. By this point in time they'd had enough hits in the world to fill a couple of CDs, the plan was to group them by theme (ballads and pop hits) and release them as separate collections. The first one out of the gate was "The Ballad Hits". But before the second collection, "The Pop Hits" got released, Marie collapsed while jogging on Sept. 11, 2002 and it was discovered her collapse was caused by a sizable tumor in her head.

Marie's collapse pretty much canceled any promotion efforts for the collection by the group as Marie would be out of commission for the promotion. The video that was released for the lead single for the collection "Opportunity Nox" was animated so that it could present Marie but without involving her while she was being treated for the tumor. Per went out to promote the album, but mostly just interviews.

Of these two collections, "The Ballad Hits" did get a US release but about a year after it was initially released in Europe (and long after Marie's collapse) so there was little to no promotion of it in the US. "The Pop Hits" collection didn't get released in the US at all.

With Marie recovering from her tumor, Roxette went into hiatus and Per kept busy with solo projects. He put out a Swedish solo album. Marie decided to an an English solo album during the time which contained songs she wrote about her dealing with the tumor. Per also did an experimental album released under the artist name "Son Of A Plumber" and the album was also named "Son Of A Plumber".

And before you knew it, it was 2006 and Marie called up Per and thought they should do something to celebrate Roxette's 20th anniversary, so two new songs were recorded and a new Best of Collection was released along with a big box 4 CD box set that also included a double sided DVD (one side all their videos and the other the first release of their MTV unplugged concert including all the songs they recorded for the show (not just the ones that aired in the special). And the Best of CD did get a US release in 2007, but the Box set did not.

Although it's been quiet for Roxette since the release of the most recent best of collection. Marie has recorded a few new Swedish solo songs in the meantime and Per has also done another Swedish solo album and another English solo album was just released in November. Per is trying to get his new album "The Party Crasher" released in the US as one of its songs has recently spent some time on Sirius/XM radio's Top 40 station as well as regularly pop up during the "Nordic Rox" weekly Scandinavian music show on Sirius/XM's "The Spectrum" channel. And in the same interview where he discussed heading to Los Angeles to talk to US labels about releasing his solo album, he said he's got a stack of songs he's written for Roxette, but he's not doing anything with those songs until Marie is ready to record again as Roxette.

So even though it appears to the US as though Roxette disappeared in the mid 1990's. They haven't, it's just required a more active role as a fan to be able to partake in the wealth of recordings Per and Marie have done together and separately in the years since they were on US Top 40 radio.

When my copy of Per's newest album showed up in early January, as I was uploading the songs to my iPod, I couldn't help but notice that it was 20 years that I got my very first Roxette album and how Per Gessle has written so many of the best songs that have filled those last 20 years. As much as I wish Roxette had better success in the US, I am grateful for the Internet because I haven't missed out on any of it just because US labels are too stupid to release great music.