Even since Benny Andersson and BjÃ¶rn Ulvaeus first realized that they had a knack for writing songs together, itâ€™s been an accepted fact that thereâ€™s something in the water of Sweden which gifts the residents of this kingdom with the abilities to write inconceivably catchy pop hooks. I mean, Iâ€™m not saying anyoneâ€™s actually done any sort of chemical analysis â€“ or, at least, I havenâ€™t, anyway â€“ but given the sheer hummability of the average Swedish composition, it seems like as good an explanation as any. As late as the mid-1990s, however, my knowledge of Swedish pop was limited to two groups â€“ ABBA and Roxette â€“ and neither were exactly the height of cool â€“ but, then, neither was I, which is why I had ABBAâ€™s Gold and Roxetteâ€™s greatest hits, Donâ€™t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus! (Even if you donâ€™t like Roxette, I think you have to admit that thatâ€™s a really awesome title.)
It was right around this time that a man named Bruce Brodeen entered my life.
As the founder of Not Lame Records, Bruce did considerable damage to my bank account, but the musical education he provided me was invaluable. When I received my first catalog from Not Lame, it made my head spin; it contained details about releases from a veritable plethora of artists, most of whom Iâ€™d neither heard nor even read about, but who were described via such different reference points like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, Queen, 10CC, XTC, Crowded House, and countless other artists whose albums graced my CD collection. What surprised and thrilled me the most, however, were the repeated comparisons to Jellyfish; theyâ€™d become one of my all-time favorites with their two albums, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, but they were such a cult band that I couldnâ€™t believe there were so many other bands who could be readily described as sounding like them. Clearly, I was going to have to try out one of these one of these bands and see if theyâ€™d really live up to the hypeâ€¦but which one? Eventually, I settled on The Merrymakers and their debut album, No Sleep â€˜Til Famous, based on this description from Bruce:
“This Swedish import is Jellyfish, Crowded House reunited w/ the Beatles and ELO and cool early Queen thrown into the mix. Ambitious without fault, pop fireworks explode, sharp riffs sideswipe, hooks pop you on the head and you become forceably drunk with memorable melodies. A no-brainer purchase if you even like half the above description. Grade: Solid ‘A’.”
Hyperbole, ahoy…? Perhaps. But it hardly mattered: I was sold.
Given that this was back in the days before online ordering was as safe, easy, and readily available as it is now, I had to endure the torturous wait of mailing off a check, waiting for it to clear, and then waiting for the CD to make its way from Not Lame HQ in Colorado to my apartment in Virginia Beach, VA. Once it finally arrived, I couldnâ€™t rip the envelope open quickly enough, and when I put it into the CD player for the first time and hit â€œplay,â€ what I experienced was nothing short of a power pop epiphany.
Accordingly, opener â€œSheâ€™s A Radioâ€ begins with a few seconds of the sound of someone working their way down the FM dial, then bursts into a shiny happy verse that knowingly nicks a bit of the riff from â€œDay Tripper.â€ Itâ€™s far from the last nod to the Merrymakersâ€™ influences; the very next track, the handclap-laden “Spinning My Mind Away,â€ features the line, â€œI donâ€™t know why you deny good vibrations / God only knows.â€ In fact, itâ€™s a viable complaint that, at times, it feels like the boys in the band donâ€™t really have a sound to call their own, instead preferring to write unabashed love letters to their favorite artists via tributes like â€œDon’t Tell Meâ€ (Paul McCartney) or â€œSmiling in the Skyâ€ (ELO).
When you get right down to it, though, the choruses are so ridiculously catchy that you find yourself forgiving even the most slavish imitations. â€œMonument of Meâ€ is a real foot-stomper, with an a capella moment at the end of the first chorus that will turn 96% of all frowns upside down; â€œJetlagâ€ might not have such a high success rate, but the happy-go-lucky new-wave keyboards that power the song are undeniably fun. Only one song tops out at over the four-minute mark, and that lone exception, â€œDreamgirl #9,â€ crosses the line by precisely one second; in other words, no song ever sticks around long enough to outstay its welcome. Indeed, the proceedings fly by so quickly that, after the album closes with the string-laden and spiritual â€œShine Your Light on Me,â€ youâ€™ll probably want to listen to it all over again, anyway.
Oh, and if youâ€™re a musician, youâ€™ll probably be aware of how much overdubbing went into this record long before you read the caveat in the liner notes which announces that fact. Last year, I traded E-mail with David Myhr, whoâ€™s credited as contributing lead and backing vocals, most guitars and basses, grand piano, keyboards, and electric sitar to the disc, and he admitted, â€œThereâ€™s not one single moment on the album where two musicians are performing at the same time. It was all built up step by step, from the programming of the hi-hat to the last harmony overdubs. We even wrote on the album, â€˜This is NOT a live recording, lots of overdubs used,â€™ just because itâ€™s normally nothing you brag about.â€ (You can read the rest of the interview here.)
No Sleep â€˜Til Famous never saw a formal release in the States, but it became a substantial hit in Japan, courtesy of the aforementioned â€œMonument of Me,â€ and resulted in the issuing of Andrewâ€™s Store, a collection of the bandâ€™s early pre-Famous singles. (Itâ€™s hard to find these days, but itâ€™s still worth seeking out.) Perhaps the greatest achievement of Famous, however, was that it caught the ear of no less a pop authority than Jellyfishâ€™s Andy Sturmer, who joined forces with the band to co-write and produce a few songs which turned up on the next Merrymakers album, 1997â€™s Bubblegun. That album did make it onto US shores, courtesy of the briefly-influential power pop label, Big Deal Records, with early pressings including a bonus second disc which offered 5 tracks from No Sleep â€˜til Famous as a bit of sonic background to new fans.
Unfortunately, Stateside success never materialized, and the band went into a state of hibernation from which theyâ€™ve only recently begun to rouse themselves. Myhr and his bandmate / collaborator, Anders Hellgren, have spent most of their time writing and producing for artists other than themselves, most notably Puffy AmiYumi. Oh, and just to bring this piece full circle, weâ€™d be remiss if we didnâ€™t mention that Myhr and Hellgren also keep themselves entertained by playing in Super Trouper, an ABBA tribute band.
So will 2008 finally bring us a new Merrymakers album? Well, the optimist in me wants to believe that, yes, this will be the year that the guys start making merry againâ€¦but after over a decade of waiting for a follow-up to Bubblegun, the realist in me is shouting at the top of his lungs, â€œDonâ€™t hold your breath,â€ so I wonâ€™t.
But Iâ€™ll still keep my fingers crossed, just in case.