A Camp, Compromise Albums, and Why Many Musicals are Pants-On-Head Retarded

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I bet I can guess what you think of when I bring up the Cardigans. You think of a one-hit wonder band from Sweden (Switzerland? No, Sweden) who did that song from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (the film for Shakespeare fans with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). But if that’s all you think of when I mention the Cardigans, I’d humbly ask you to think again. Consider, perhaps, 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight, the Cardigans’ best album (it’s wonderfully devoid of “Lovefool,” a song that was used to hilarious effect in the Edgar Wright film Hot Fuzz). Long Gone Before Daylight is their best album largely because of Nina Persson’s voice, which usually falls somewhere between “enchanting” and “amazing.”

Persson’s voice is reason enough to listen to any one of her projects (she is one of the many stellar collaborators on the doomed Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse opus Dark Night of the Soul), and it’s the reason I chose to check out her latest solo effort, Colonia. Colonia was released under the band name A Camp, for reasons that I’m too lazy to look up.  I’ve had this album for months (in fact, I feel like I’ve had it for most of the year) and my feelings about it vacillate between “this is pretty good” to “these songs are outtakes from some campy musical and I sort of resent myself for liking them.”

Colonia starts off really strong, with the one-two punch of “The Crowning” (a great tune about the crowning of someone’s “useless/ruthless” head. Could be about recent American leaders or current Iranian ones) and “Stronger than Jesus”, which does the whole “love is a battlefield” thing with a healthier dose of snark. The album never quite gets back to the heights it reaches on its first two tracks, but – on a good day – I think it never sinks far below them either, not counting the last forty seconds or so of “Here are Many Wild Animals” – those forty seconds make that track one of the worst on Colonia.

My feeling that Colonia consists of songs from some lost Broadway show is bolstered by the theatrical presentation of the material. The album is littered with swelling horn parts and lilting strings and harmonized “Oo-ee-oo” vocals. Like many musicals, there’s no discernible plot to Colonia (sorry, kids, but more happens in Waiting for Godot than in Phantom of the Opera and it’s taken me years to realize this, but Rent doesn’t tell you anything that you can’t hear better on the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.), other than some loose thematic unity regarding the difficulties of romance. Persson is well-qualified to sing dirges to dead love (one of her best songs with the Cardigans is “And Then You Kissed Me”, a tale of love and domestic violence) and Colonia is pretty appealing when she does, with the exception of the too-campy “I Signed the Line”, which is about getting a divorce. Now that I think about it, however, “I Signed the Line” is too campy for a pop album but just campy enough for your average Broadway show.*

Overall, Colonia is one of many middle of the road, pleasant-enough releases that have come out this year, the kind of thing no one will complain about if you put it on at a party. But no one will get excited about it either. To be honest, not much of it excites me at all beyond it’s first two tracks. After that, Colonia is a compromise album that both my fiance and I can put up with (she actually likes it a lot more than I do) when trying to find something to listen to that doesn’t annoy the crap out of one of us (we’ve recently discovered that she likes Lou Barlow’s Emoh record, and that makes me very happy indeed). If you’re in a relationship where you and your girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever have drastically different taste in music, chances are, Nina Persson’s latest solo album will provide you with something listenable and keep you from dissing each other’s favorite bands (my fiance hates two of my favorite bands, namely the Clash and the Hold Steady. You may wonder how I can marry someone who bears two of the best bands ever such antipathy, but think about it: dating or marrying someone based merely on what they like is not only a dick move, it’s a shallow dick move. And before you go droppin’ High Fidelity quotes on me, the whole point of that book and movie is that the main character is shallow and immature. That’s why both book and film end with him making his girl a mix tape of shit that she likes).

So Nina Persson seems to have proven that you don’t have to be exciting to be good. Or at least she doesn’t have to be exciting to be good – we can’t go extending this theory to all musicians equally. After all, Kenny G is still unexciting and terrible. The problem is, though, when compared to the last two Cardigans records, Colonia, apart from its two opening tracks, feels kind of unnecessary. Long Gone Before Daylight and Super Extra Gravity don’t rock out with their genitals out, but they both provide genuinely exciting (and genuinely beautiful) moments that Colonia mostly lacks. At the end of the day, I guess, whether or not you like Colonia depends largely on how much you’ll forgive Nina Persson’s duller digressions. And that, for me anyway, rests largely on how much I like her voice, which means I’m pretty much damning Colonia with faint praise. But really, you can take this whole review as a lukewarm recommendation of Colonia and an earnest reminder to check out the more recent – and vastly superior – Cardigans albums.

*Lest I be accused of musical-bashing, I’d like to clarify that I don’t hate all musicals. I hate most musicals and that’s mostly because they’re mostly the same. Mostly, they’re love stories wrapped around convoluted (yet flimsy!) plots featuring characters who never really develop beyond the songs they sing, which means they end up being sort of musical character archetypes. And nowadays, musicals are mostly based on movie versions of old musicals. Which means they then spawn new movies of the new musical based on the old movie of the old musical (see The Producers for examples of this). Some of my favorite musicals, in no particular order: Avenue Q, Assassins, Urinetown, Caroline or Change, and the Woody Allen movie Everyone Says I Love You.

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