The first track off The Sounds’ sophomore effort, Dying to Say This to You, is entitled “Song with a Mission.” So to start, let me just get this out of the way: no band whose album art resembles an American Apparel ad as closely as this one should ever be allowed to lay claim to a “mission.” Ever.
Unless, of course, that mission is just to make a helluva catchy pop album… in which case our hypothetical band would be in mighty good company. Right down to the shaggy scenester hairdo and cigarette-damaged sneer of front woman Maja Ivarsson, The Sounds are quite possibly our greatest triumph of style over substance extant.
Just listen to the aforementioned “Song with a Mission”: it’s rousing and propulsive, with enough cowbell, rumbling bass and stabs of guitar to suggest that these guys have been learning a thing or two from fellow stylish Swedes The Hives (“Walk Idiot Walk,” anyone?). Hell, if it weren’t for the fact that it means absolutely nothing, you might even find yourself believing that the song really is an anthem. As an opening salvo, an exercise in egotism and a statement of vapid intent, “Song with a Mission” couldn’t be better executed – and if the rest of Dying to Say This to You was as good, I’d be a very happy man. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case.
To their credit, however, The Sounds don’t lose momentum for lack of trying. While nothing else on the album really matches “Mission” for pure energy, songs like “Tony the Beat” and “Hurt You” make up for the angular guitar rock they lack with dance beats and infectious synth – they’re Euro club tunes with an edge. And if high-attitude, low-content lyrics are your thing, then you’re in luck; pricelessly ironic lines with a tenuous-at-best grasp on the English language abound, most of them about who shouldn’t be listening to The Sounds (“This song is not for you,” Maja crows in “Song with a Mission,” and in “Tony the Beat,” she emphasizes that “This song is not for your lovers,” either).
All in all, Dying‘s combination of slick production, retro dance stylings and goofy-as-hell words reminds me of nothing more than the brief but intense flirtation I had with J-Pop in my early high school years. The vocals are often a dead ringer for Kumi of Love Psychedelico, and a straightforward synthpop number like “Ego” could have fit in neatly on a Tommy February solo album… although I sincerely doubt that Tommy would ever say anything as bitchy as “I’ve seen your fucking attitude” or “I’ve been doing someone that you know.”
The only trouble is, once Ivarsson and the boys stray away from the pure kitsch that is their specialty, things get a little… well, too silly. Tracks four through six dig into an angst that’s unbecoming for a band as inherently shallow as The Sounds; and if “24 Hours” and “Painted By Numbers” at least justify themselves with hooky, upbeat arrangements, “Night After Night” is the unquestionable “Lick My Love Pump” of the bunch. Over a heartfelt piano arrangement, Ivarsson spills her guts: “Night after night, you say you’ll move on / Tomorrow…tomorrow… / Now what’s holding you back? / I don’t know… I don’t know… I don’t know…” It might just be the funniest, most ludicrous moment on the record – but something tells me that was far from The Sounds’ intention.
Still, at just under 36 minutes, Dying to Say This to You clearly knows its place: it’s a sugar rush of an album, a quick, fun and disposable dose of stylish, New Wave-influenced rock with a Europop twist. Is it some kind of masterpiece? If you’ve been reading this review, you’ll already know the answer to that question. But music listeners can’t subsist on masterpieces alone; so if you’re looking for a dessert to complement your daily serving of mid-period Blondie – or maybe even something to play in the car on your way to American Apparel – then this just might be the ticket.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins