Remember Rock?


A seasoned Swedish band named The Soundtrack of Our Lives are having a fairly grand debut here, suddenly, courtesy of a small Midwestern indie label. The offering includes no fewer than 51 songs stretched across three fanciful yet thoroughly professional-looking CDs originally released in Europe during the last five years; the albums include, from 1996 and 1998 respectively, Welcome to the Infant Freebase and Extended Revelation, as well as Behind the Music, which appeared overseas in early 2001. Pop music from Sweden hasn’t been in short supply in the United States for a while now, yet it would be wrong to say that The Soundtrack of Our Lives, some homegrown acclaim notwithstanding, are anything like hot — except in the fevered minds of the people who run the tiny Midwestern indie label. These fanatics introduce the group, a sextet, in press materials as “the world’s greatest living rock band.” Let there be no doubt, TSOOL — yep, there’s even the ur-rock acronymic nickname floating around — are the beneficiary of good old-fashioned record-freak passion.

This is perfect, because The Soundtrack of Our Lives take good old-fashioned record-freak passion as the aural foundation of their very, very, very rock endeavor. Remember rock? These days the question rings a little like that of Mel Gibson’s wily old coot of a comrade in The Road Warrior, who, momentarily overcome by the frenetic landscape of ravage and ruin surrounding him, looks up and asks, “Remember lingerie?”

Of course rock kicks around today, often stained with hip-hop distress, still obeying the creed of tight leather pants, sometimes toying ambitiously with radiohead whims and ironies. But rock, although long striking a high and mighty — which is to say oblivious — pose, has experienced rampaging pop competition for decades now. And most pop is not about mining ecstasies from ridiculously illogical, intentionally curtailed means; at its finest, pop is transcendently rational, not psychedelic. That’s one reason hip-hop could become the new pop so handily: Want to express the streets? Grab a beat-box and start talking. Classic rock dreams, after all, involve trying to get by without snappy melodies or raps or stories or beats or arrangements — or longing to expose primal truths, build cathedrals, ascend to the moon using only bass, guitars, and drums. But great old rockers used to do all those things in their sleep, as the deep romance of every second of TSOOL’s music references sensuously. Their music, during an era of blunt rock, is lingerie.

TSOOL’s singer is named Ebbot Lundberg; his voice is more effective than flashy, just always and presencefully there. On “Mantra Slider,” the opener of the first album — a top-notch example of one of those fast-moving grooves that rockers rev up and metallicize with hard-edged guitars and drums that would never in a million years occur to the blues or r&b musicians who invented the groove to begin with — Lundberg bellows and preaches secularly; his tone is determined, fiery, somewhat clinched, briefly nasal in spots, a Swedish consolidation of dark-sunglasses cool. As always, he’s singing words that are themselves almost pure style; “I’m ready to close my eyes,” he promises Stoogily in “Instant Repeater,” a mid-tempo that permits itself some closely curbed sweet harmonies and melodic hooks, “I’m ready to blow my mind.”

Especially given that disciplined and gnarly guitarist Bjorn Olsson survives only the first album and is replaced on the succeeding two, it’s Lundberg’s tenor that makes all TSOOL’s folk excursions and boogie underpinnings and rock-blues bursts cohere. Sonically, he’s the man, whether breathing out the band’s raison d’ être on “Endless Song” (“Take a trip in an endless song”; “To stay in tune is to stay in time”), or singing the collection of finely nuanced ballads that comprise most of the second album, or seeming actually to become the trip, as on “The Flood,” from the third album, a surreal rave-up in which TSOOL nudge open the gates of rock heaven.

Unlike the work of so many indie musicians (Pussy Galore, Liz Phair, hello?) who have espoused similar values during the last two decades — the kind of rabidly clued-in musicians who might recognize TSOOL as the later and more refined version of a rawer outfit known as Union Carbide Productions — these three albums never strand listeners in the conceptual; you don’t listen to TSOOL and think, “Oh, right: I hear the idea of the Stones or whatever, but this still sounds like crap.” TSOOL’s music is the unstintingly well-executed product of European study and remove, visceral proof of the proposition that vocal rock music, even when it relies on songfulness and rhythm, can operate with the subtle intrusiveness and purposeful scope of instrumental scores. It seems a bit of a masquerade. But it’s also an obsession.

Which only takes us back to The Rock. During the mid ’90s, I sat at a Chicago bistro with James Iha, guitarist of the late Smashing Pumpkins, the last American band except for Queens of the Stone Age to imagine successfully the large rock dream, and listened to him talk about an odd sort of time travel. Sometimes, Iha told me, he loved to stare at album covers from the ’60s and ’70s, especially those with mega-stylized old photography. “You see, like, Steve Winwood,” Iha said, “and you think, ‘This is a real guy, from that time, who got up and went to a photo shoot. What was he thinking?'” The quote has stuck with me for years, just like the pictures haunted Iha, just like the music behind both yielded TSOOL.