Sweden also has nice chairs
Peter Bjorn and John + Born Ruffians
January 30, 2006
Professionalism in music gets a bad rap sometimes. There’s this idea that a musician’s job is to somehow drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming into her own headspace and force us to feel her pain. That’s a big part of the reason why we idolize musicians who died before their times, why the record label invariably ends up looking like the villain in any story about a conflict between artist and label. I don’t know whether this idea has any currency in Sweden, a country where the government actually makes financial grants to rock bands. I’d like to think it doesn’t, that the dominant impulse for just about any Swedish musician is to write big hit songs with lots of hooks, that art and commerce aren’t seen as diametrically opposed forces. I’m sure that’s a totally simplistic supposition; Sweden has, after all, churned out enough black metal bands to fill at least three circles of hell. But it’s also produced Abba and Ace of Base and the soundtrack to the best Target commercial ever; I’m not sure there’s a country on Earth that’s spawned more hit singles per capita. And that impulse seems to have trickled down to Sweden’s indie-rock circles; even evil synthpop goblins like the Knife and scrabbly postpunk jitter-merchants Love is All are catchy as all hell more often than not. And I can’t think of a better example of that catchiness-impulse than Peter Bjorn and John, the power-pop trio currently playing a series of sold-out dates in New York. I was a bit skeptical when the biggest kingpins in the indie-pop blog game anointed their Mercury Lounge show as the best shit ever, considering that PB&J’s new album is basically just a pretty good example of uber-clean studio-pop with exactly one transcendent single. But I walked out of last night’s show convinced that this band’s album was better than I’d remembered. You can’t really ask for much more out of a live performance than that.
PB&J worked onstage because they’re total pros, because they know how to do all the little things. They know that rumpled suits are always a good look for Swedish indie-pop bands. They know that they can’t reliably replicate the whistling on “Young Folks,” that one transcendent single, and they know that almost nobody will mind if they just lip-sync it instead. They know that a good part of that one transcendent single’s charms lie in its overdriven bongos and in the beautifully coy vocal performance of their guest, ex-Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman, so they know it’s worth spending the extra air fare to bring Bergsman and a bongo player over from Sweden so they can replicate that one song perfectly and then disappear completely from the show. They know that their immaculately clean music needs a monster of a sound-engineer to work live, so they hired one. Their drummer knows that his clappy disco beats will work a lot better if he plays them with a spare, fussy restraint, only playing fills when the song absolutely demands it. They don’t know everything, maybe: the broken-English stage patter went a bit long sometimes, and they let their bass player mess up the show’s momentum immediately after “Young Folks” when he absolutely butchered his vocal turn on “Amsterdam.” Still, virtually every moment in the show was immaculately planned-out, including the damn harmonica bits on the one song where frontman Peter Moren straps on one of those Bob Dylan no-hands harmonica-holder things. Even onstage, maybe especially onstage, the people in the band seemed as much like graphic designers as rock stars, taking pains never to clutter up their songs with any unnecessary elements. And that thorough professionalism, combined with the genteel grace of their sweet little pop songs, made for a show many orders of magnitude better than what I usually see from hyped-up blog-rock bands. Halfway through the set, I was convinced that maybe I should’ve listened to their album more than a couple of times, that maybe I liked it better than I thought. By the time they got to the pre-encore show-closer “Up Against the Wall,” a stretched-out swoon good enough to have a place on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic (totally that band’s best album unless 21 Singles counts), I was convinced that I actually loved PB&J after all.
“Young Folks” and “Up Against the Wall” excepted, PB&J’s songs don’t really smack me in the side of the head, but the band does everything it can to turn its pretty-good songs into great ones, and that counts for a lot. Their openers, Born Ruffians, did the opposite. The young Toronto trio has a set of similarly solid-if-unspectacular songs, but they do almost everything in their power to derail those songs, trying too hard to grab attention with any number of misguided tricks: ticcy stop-start dymanics, Modest Mouse fake-yokel screeches, maniacally busy drums that rarely lock into anything resembling a groove. Buried under all that mess, there’s a pretty good band somewhere, a reserved but swaggery indie-pop combo with an ear for melody. Every time I go to the Bowery Ballroom, the opening act turns out to be terrible. These guys were the best non-headliners I’ve seen there since Buried Inside, which I suppose is some kind of triumph. And they’re green; they’ve only released one EP thus far. But if they ever hope to become great, they’re going to have to learn the little things. I hope they paid attention to the headliners last night.