A Smorgasbord of Sounds


Power pop is neither powerful nor popular right now. It's been a long time since the upper-middle-class fans at folk festivals were just folks.

Alt-rock used to be an alternative to junk; now it's just as likely to be awful. There's no jazz in soft jazz, no blues in R&B and definitely no gay in reggae.

Now add Americana to the list of musical misnomers.

One of the year's loveliest Americana albums comes from Sweden. "This Is Where Our Hearts Collide," Amandine's debut, swells with the aching combination of loping guitars, lonely cello and muted trumpet that gets filed as alt-country or roots rock – and doesn't signify any of those things.

An accordion drives "Fine Lines" as a man and woman harmonize; a solemn piano coda segues into the brass and steel "Stitches" … and the woman is gone.

Whenever Swedes do something that American and British critics think their countrymen can do better, the stupid generalizations come out. Owing, perhaps, to misguided equations of neutrality and impotence, the reaction is less hostility than disbelief. Like: "Fill-in-the-blank‚" a pop/metal/rock/Americana group from, of all places, Sweden. But why not Sweden?

Whether you listened to pop radio in the '70s, '80s or '90s, Swedes cranked out a stream of guilty pleasures: ABBA, Roxette and Ace of Base could get the haughtiest rock snob to hum their hooks, and Swedish producer Max Martin put his inane lyrics in the mouths of millions of American preteens via the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and NSync.

Swedes with a proclivity for death metal emerged in the late 1980s and early '90s; groups with scary names like Entombed and Dismember spent a lot of time making their album art so scary that no one would notice that their singers sounded just like Cookie Monster, who is decidedly not scary.

As alt-rock boomed, the Cardigans and Komeda crossed bubblegum catchiness with indie cachet; unlike most of their American contemporaries, you could dance to the Cardigans' "Lovefool" and not feel guilty.

Then, 2002 was the year of Swedish rock: Sahara Hotnights, the Hives and Division of Laura Lee helped bring loud, basic guitars back to radio, then politely stepped aside when the White Stripes and Jet came to reassert American dominance.

Amandine, which plays Space 1026 on Arch Street in Philadelphia on Nov. 19, isn't about dominance, and it sure isn't about getting anyone to dance. Over delicately braided guitar, piano, strings and drums, Olof Gidlof sings (in English) about the way two souls fit together and, more often, the lonely spaces in between.

On "Firefly," Gidlof's voice flutters, flashes and fades as yet another couple tries and fails to get it right. It's the most universal sentiment there is.

And if Swedes can express it perfectly in an American idiom, we're all a little closer to fitting together.

• • •

Then there's the women featured on "La Guitara: Gender Bending Strings," who've heard their share of stupid generalizations. Like, "Why are there no great female guitar players?"

Frustrated by repeatedly hearing that question from people who should know better, singer-songwriter Patty Larkin made it her mission to disprove their assumption by digging up forgotten pioneers and showcasing new artists.

The first volume in the "La Guitara" series collects 14 tracks, reaching back to the early 1930s with Memphis Minnie's "Let's Go to Town," and it's broad enough to include Wu Man's traditional Chinese pipa playing and Badi Assad's blend of Brazilian jazz and classical guitar.

Almost all of the pieces are instrumental. Ellen McIlwaine's Indian-influenced wailing on the Eastern blues "Sidu (Grandmother)" is a noteworthy exception but despite the lack of a lyrical thread or even an overarching style, "La Guitara" flows well.

Larkin, who paid her dues on the folk circuit, comes Nov. 5 to World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., also in Philadelphia, with some of the compilations of more contemporary performers: Muriel Anderson is a fingerpicking champ, Kaki King brings out the guitar's percussiveness, and Mimi Fox plays fast and jazzy. The four women approach the instrument in very different ways, but they're all great at what they do and fit together just right.


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