The Scandinavian tradition of vapid guilty-pleasure pop dates back to ABBA, and it so thoroughly dominates the prejudices of the rest of the West that the very idea of an authentic, unrefined album coming out of the land of the midnight sun seemed until recently well-nigh inconceivable. Ace of Base, the Cardigans, a-ha and Roxette are but a fraction of a legacy of fluffy pop contraptions as cheerful, inoffensive and, ultimately, as characterless as a roomful of IKEA furniture. (True, there's the Scandi death metal at the other extreme, but that's another story.)
But lately that's all changed, and along with the Hives and the International Noise Conspiracy, Nicolai Dunger helps make up the new Swedish Invasion. Unlike his raw-sounding countrymen, Dunger is much subtler and darker, and he's no punk anarchist or garage-rocker.
After abandoning a pro-soccer career and a decade or so on the Nordic avant-garde scene, Dunger has deigned to make an accessible album. Released last year to mediocre sales on Virgin/Sweden and licensed stateside on Lakeshore Records, Soul Rush was Sweden's unofficial critics' pick as the album of the year in 2001.
Let's get this out of the way from the jump: Soul Rush is full of undeniable Van Morrison and Jeff Buckley influences, especially the former. As with Morrison's masterpiece Astral Weeks, Dunger uses jazz players and has them playing a swirling mélange of country, rock, soul, folk, pop and classical flavors on lots of horns, keys and strings, and his slurry, impassioned singing style sounds at times like mere mimicry of Van the Man.
Throughout, the mood on Soul Rush is supremely autumnal -- the last ripe blackberries dropping off the bush, the first full-on norther that hints at the gray days to come. Not that the album is wall-to-wall somber -- far from it. The Morrison sound-alike "Something New" leavens the mood a bit, and the piano-led outro to the stomping rave-up "Return of Love" sounds a lot like Los Lobos, specifically "The Neighborhood."
On the slower numbers, Dunger's arrangements strongly call to mind Jenny Toomey's Lambchop collabo on the "Nashville" side of her masterful double CD Antidote. Melancholy reigns in all its exquisite agony, but just enough hope cuts through the murk to make this the perfect album to get sufferers of seasonal affective disorder through the winter.
Although it's a great album, Soul Rush falls short of masterpiece status on two counts: its derivativeness and two errors of inclusion. As for the first shortcoming, where Soul Rush does sound and feel like a masterpiece is too often precisely where it sounds the most like someone else's masterpiece. As for the second charge, the two overly somber bonus tracks tacked onto the North American release detract from the original sequence.
But if you love Astral Weeks, it's likely you'll love Astral Swedes, er, Soul Rush as well. Meanwhile, Dunger's Will Oldham-produced follow-up should be in stores by now, and it will be interesting to see whether Dunger can step a little more comfortably into his own shoes.