Starting out in the mid-’90s as the Twelve Caesars, this quartet from Borlänge, Sweden proffers ’60s garage rock on its first album, complete with weedy Farfisa organ, grimy guitar (not to mention plenty of tremolo on the spooky ballad “Suzy Creamcheese”) and distorted vocals. In “Sort It Out,” guitarist César Vidal wails a truly dysfunctional response to a breakup (“I wanna smoke crack / ‘Cause you’re never comin’ back / I wanna shoot speedballs / Bang my head against the wall”); in “(I’m Gonna) Kick You Out,” he cops a line from the film Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, complaining about being “A man with a fork / In a world full of soup.” Throughout Youth Is Wasted on the Young, the Twelve Caesars perform with energy and high spirits, but fall short in the melody department.
Changing its name to Caesars Palace, the band made some progress on Cherry Kicks, upping the tunage in “Right About Time,” “Only You,” “Oh Yeah?” and the title track. They also vary their approach a bit, adding a touch of folk guitar to “Fun and Games” and applying a motorik groove to “Punkrocker.”
Love for the Streets offers an even more consistent set of songs, getting off to a great start with “Over ‘Fore It Started” and “Kandy Kane.” “Fifteen Minutes Too Late,” “Black Heart” and especially the single “Jerk It Out,” with its memorable organ hook, offer more of the Caesars’ enthusiastic retro-rock. Successfully pushing their stylistic limits, there’s a ska beat in “She Don’t Mind,” finger-picked folk guitar on “Burn the City Down” and just a hint of country flavor in “Mine All of the Time.”
As an introduction to America (with a less confusing and actionable name), 39 Minutes of Bliss gathers a dozen songs from the three previous releases, most of them from Youth Is Wasted on the Young. The selection favors rock and roll drive over melody; most of the songwriting advances of the second and third albums are ignored in an effort to present the Caesars as tough Swedish garage-rockers. (Blame the concurrent success of the Hives.) Love for the Streets is represented only by “Jerk It Out,” the song that gave the Caesars a major lift in 2004 when it was used in an iPod commercial.
The Caesars followed that stroke of good fortune with a period of wood-shedding and delivered an album clearly intended to live up to whatever expectations the band expected of its new audience (including a remix of “Jerk It Out”). The production on Paper Tigers is far from slick, but it does clarify the band’s murky sound, revealing layers of guitar, keyboard and harmonies in the mix. Even better, every song has a great melody and catchy hooks. “Spirit” opens the album in grand style, gradually building from messy guitars and echoey vocals into a majestic, passionate anthem. “It’s Not the Fall That Hurts,” “Soulchaser,” “Throwaway” and “We Got to Leave” all measure up to “Jerk It Out” in terms of tunefulness and urgency. Track for track, Paper Tigers is the foursome’s most consistent, satisfying album.
Produced by Soundtrack of Our Lives’ singer Ebbot Lundberg, Strawberry Weed was issued as a 24-song, two-CD set in Europe; Astralwerks cherry-picked a dozen tracks for the US. (Both editions are wrapped in the same dreadful cover collage.) “Boo Boo Goo Goo” and “No Tomorrow” (both hit singles in Sweden) offer more of the Caesars’ catchy, Farfisa-driven style. For most of the album, though, the arrangements are slightly stripped down, with less emphasis on keyboards. “Waking Up,” “She’s Getting High,” “Run No More,” “New Year’s Day” and the title track, sound less like ’60s garage punk than ’70s power pop. “Fool’s Parade” is driven by Nino Keller’s ferocious drumming; “Tough Luck” sets a lullaby vocal melody over light-fingered acoustic guitar and twinkling keyboards. The Caesars also try an ’80s synth-pop sound on “Watching the Moon” and “In Orbit,” a song reminiscent of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home).” Guitarist Joakim Åhlund steps up to the mic for the ragtime piano ditty “You’re Next” and the album-closing rocker “You Nailed Me.” Most of Strawberry Weed‘s prime tracks can be found on the American version; the two-disc set includes such filler as the instrumentals “Every Road Leads Home,” “Solina” and “Happy Happy.”
When he’s not busy in the Caesars, Joakim Åhlund plays in Teddybears STHLM (unrelated to Norway’s archly nostalgic Teddy Bears), along with his guitar-playing brother Klas (who produced, or co-produced, all of the Caesars albums through Paper Tigers) and singer Patrik Arve. (At least they’re the purported members: band photos and videos show three guys cavorting in oversize bear masks — a Scandinavian answer to the Residents, perhaps?) Beginning as a noisy hardcore band with a name intended to tweak the conventions of Scandinavia’s “black metal” scene, Teddybears abandoned the grind in favor of a much more eclectic mixture that encompasses pop, psychedelia, electronica, dancehall reggae and funk. For its debut American CD, Soft Machine, the group dropped the STHLM appellation, remixed or re-recorded songs from Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool and Fresh (bookending them with two new songs), and brought in a roster of guest vocalists. Ebbot Lundberg lends his voice to “Riot Going On,” Neneh Cherry lays her dreamiest vocals over the enticing pop song “Yours to Keep,” and Iggy Pop sings a synthed-up remake of the Caesars’ “Punkrocker.” Dance tracks such as “Are You Feelin’ It,” “Ahead of My Time” and “Little Stereo” deliver reggae toasting over bass-heavy dance grooves, with melodies reminiscent of the Caesars. Guest MC Mad Cobra revisits the Sugarhill Gang’s “bomb-bida-bomb-di-dang-di-dang-diggy” vocal hook in “Cobra Style,” showing that Kid Rock didn’t squeeze all the juice out of it. The twinkling instrumentals “Magic Kraut” and “Alma” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Strawberry Weed, alongside that album’s synth-pop efforts. For those in search of something fresh and funky to include in their next party mix, Soft Machine may be just the ticket.