How do you solve a problem like Frida?
The Modern - Frida Hyvonen
Eight tracks into Frida Hyvonen's generally wise and wisely ambivalent Until Death Comes (Amazon: US, UK, eMusic), the album jacknives into an unwelcome aesthetic cul-de-sac: a tepid piano ballad with such virtually unforgivable lyrics as Romance is in the air, New York/I want to be a part of you, New York. Sure, that city's been known to arouse sentimental, wince-inducing babble from greater wordsmiths than the Swedish singer-songwriter. But it doesn't make it any less dispiriting when, mere minutes previous, in a song that nails (pun acknowledged and sorta regretted) the hazy complicity of young girls in their own seduction, Hyvonen intones Once I was a serene teenaged child/Once I felt your cock against my thigh, and goes on to sing candidly about the feeling of pride and the lonelinesss of falling for the lines of some asshole who calls himself a poet. In fact, when you compare "N.Y." with "Once I Was A Serene Teenaged Child" (video) or the spritely "Djuna!" which, as far as I can tell, is about a soured menage a trois, you start to question whether you're dealing with the same person.
Then you also begin to wonder if Hyvonen, like compatriot Jens Lekman, is up to something a little more complex than the usual sincere singer-songwriter shtick. Viewed as a sequence of costumed and masked performances of femininity similar to Cindy Sherman's photographic Untitled Film Stills series, Hyvonen could be said to interrogate the process of self-representation, the slippage between the singer and the sung "I." One of the best songs on the album, the torrid key-pounding melodrama, "You Never Got Me Right" gets at this:
Then you said to me that I was cold and stern
Said I'm like a man, I was no woman
Well you intellectualized my emotion
And called me baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby...
I know very little about Hyvonen (by design--I don't like biographical details getting in the way of newly encountered music), so while I understand her effects, I could be way overestimating her intentions. Like most people, she could simply have some taste issues. ("N.Y." isn't the only track that gives pause; "Valerie," a valediction to a female lover, also nudges the needle on the sap-o-meter.) I do know that her voice is bold and clear and confident. And despite some rhythmic redundancy, the stark piano-driven songs soar and thrill and surprise--as in the brief, capering whimsy, "The Modern," (video), where a girl imagines getting her boyfriend pregnant. So I'm giving Hyvonen the benefit of the doubt.
Frida Hyvonen's Web site, Myspace
Frida and I - The Fine Arts Showcase
By now, even my sixty-something parents know that all the good new pop comes from Sweden, especially pop of the twee and garage variety. You'll find some of that--and much, much more--on The Fine Arts Showcase's piecemeal rock record Radiola (eMusic). While he isn't unfamiliar with self-effacing folkiness, what Gustaf Kjellvander (who basically is The Fine Arts Showcase) really gravitates towards are the more theatrical idioms of popular music--vaudeville, glam, mid-century crooners, even goth. What makes the album's ocassional affectations bearable are the supremely catchy songs and watching Kjellvander successfully pull off some pretty swift scenery changes.